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Why Have Children?

Basic Bioethics
Arthur Caplan, editor

A complete list of the books in the Basic Bioethics series appears at the
back of this book.
Why Have Children?

The Ethical Debate

Christine Overall

The MIT Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts
London, England
© 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Overall, Christine, 1949–

Why have children? : the ethical debate / Christine Overall.
â•… p.â•… cm. — (Basic bioethics)
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
ISBN 978-0-262-01698-8 (hardcover : alk. paper)
1. Human reproduction—Moral and ethical aspects. I. Title.
QP251.O85â•… 2012
10â•… 9â•… 8â•… 7â•… 6â•… 5â•… 4â•… 3â•… 2â•… 1
For Tabitha Bernard
and her daughter, Arden Noor Khan,
with love and appreciation

Series Forewordâ•… ix
Acknowledgmentsâ•… xi

1 Introductionâ•… 1
2 Reproductive Freedom, Autonomy, and Reproductive Rightsâ•… 19
3 When Prospective Parents Disagreeâ•… 35
4 Deontological Reasons for Having Childrenâ•… 57
5 Consequentialist Reasons for Having Childrenâ•… 71
6 Not “Better Never to Have Been”â•… 95
7 An Obligation Not to Procreate?â•… 117
8 Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decisionâ•… 149
9 Overpopulation and Extinctionâ•… 173
10â•… Procreation, Values, and Identityâ•… 203

Notesâ•… 221
Referencesâ•… 237
Indexâ•… 247
Series Foreword

Glenn McGee and I developed the Basic Bioethics series and collaborated
as series coeditors from 1998 to 2008. In fall 2008 and spring 2009, the
series was reconstituted, with a new editorial board and under my sole
editorship. I am pleased to present the thirtieth book in the series.
The Basic Bioethics series makes innovative works in bioethics avail-
able to a broad audience and introduces seminal scholarly manuscripts,
state-of-the-art reference works, and textbooks. Topics engaged include
the philosophy of medicine, advancing genetics and biotechnology, end-
of-life care, health and social policy, and the empirical study of biomedi-
cal life. Interdisciplinary work is encouraged.
Arthur Caplan
Basic Bioethics Series Editorial Board
Joseph J. Fins
Rosamond Rhodes
Nadia N. Sawicki
Jan Helge Solbakk

Writing this book has been an exciting and difficult challenge, and many
people as well as two institutions have provided input, support, and help.
In 2006, Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, ap-
pointed me the tenth Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies for a year. The
university offered the ideal environment to begin work on this project.
Queen’s University, which awarded me a University Research Chair in
2005 and renewed it in 2010, has made it possible for me to continue
writing while also teaching and supervising graduate students.
To my friends and Queen’s University Philosophy Department col-
leagues Susan Babbitt, Jacqueline Davies, and Adèle Mercier, thank you
for your support, understanding, and courage. Your political acuity, per-
sonal warmth, and wisdom have been invaluable. In the department’s
main office, Marilyn Lavoie and Judy Vanhooser are always patient, kind,
and knowledgeable sources of assistance.
Unbeknownst to herself, Tabitha Bernard, a master’s student at Mount
Saint Vincent University, played a big role in this book. Her brave and
groundbreaking work on the ethics of planned unassisted childbirth re-
minded me that reproductive ethics is still a huge field with many unex-
plored questions. Thank you, Tabitha, for helping me to return to some of
my academic origins. And I am delighted about the birth of your beautiful
daughter, Arden Noor.
I have also been inspired along the way by Tanya (Oja) Watson, who
wrote her Queen’s master’s thesis on childlessness and the concept of
woman, and by Queen’s PhD student Katherine (Kassy) Wayne, whose
insights into bioethical issues always open my eyes to new ways of seeing.
As a philosophy PhD student at Queen’s, Christopher Lowry, now at
the Chinese University of Hong Kong, gave me detailed comments on
xii    Acknowledgments

parts of the book. At two of the annual meetings of the Canadian Philo-
sophical Association, Nicholas Dixon of Alma College, Michigan, and
Wesley Cooper of the University of Alberta provided helpful and encour-
aging comments on early drafts of parts of the book. And the undergradu-
ate students in my course Philosophy 204, “Life, Death, and Meaning,”
in 2007, 2008, and 2009 prompted me to think carefully both about
whether coming into existence is always harmful and about whether hu-
man extinction is inevitably a bad thing. Vishaal Patel, Matthew Kersten,
and Rian Dewji, students in this course in 2007 and 2009, were especially
insightful about the work of David Benatar.
I am fortunate to have had the support of Clay Morgan of the MIT
Press while I finished and revised this book. I also thank Deborah Cantor-
Adams and Annie Barva for their excellent work in editing my manuscript.
I am very grateful for the feedback I received from the three external
reviewers of this manuscript: Dena Davis of Cleveland State University;
Laura Purdy of Wells College, New York; and Nadia Sawicki of Loyola
University, Chicago. I am indebted to them for the time they devoted
to reading and responding to my work; each one helped me to rethink
crucial parts of the book. Any remaining problems or weaknesses are, of
course, entirely my responsibility.
I am deeply appreciative of all that I am learning at Kingston’s Path
Yoga. Thank you to Carolyn Johanson and all the instructors for teach-
ing me that yoga is about strength and flexibility of the mind as well as
of the body, that the yoga mat reflects what is going on in my practice
and my life, and that I don’t have to push myself to the point of injury or
I also thank my friends Kathy Silver and Bob Cadman. Bob is always
game for a philosophical discussion, and his hospitality and kindness are
heartwarming. Kathy, my Big Sister, wise woman, and dancing queen: I’m
so glad you are in my life.
Nancy Chapple has been an excellent writing companion (and “trophy
guest”) at several stages in the writing of this book. Evan Alcock, my
friend for fifty-something years, provides the best possible example of
devotion to research, love of learning, and staying forever young. Gisela
Braun and Dave Beavan have been supportive by taking me back to my
high school roots.
Acknowledgments    xiii

Tom Russell always reminds me that teaching is important and deserves

all the time and attention I can give it. Ruth Dubin’s personal strength and
her commitment to science and scholarship are inspiring. Beth Morrison
shows me how an enlightened life might be lived, and Sylvia Burkinshaw
was a strong example of living life well for more than nine decades.
My friend and former student Sue Donaldson is one of the very best
philosophers I know; her insights are immeasurably helpful. My col-
league and friend Sue Hendler, whose death in 2009 was a devastating
loss, always supported me in rethinking problems and believing in myself.
I am thankful to my mother, Dorothy Overall, for choosing to have
children despite her fears about global dangers. I am grateful to Julie
Mayrand and Mike Ashton, whose intelligence, kindness, and sense of
fun have immeasurably enriched our family.
My cat, Ozzie, accompanied me through the writing of four books.
This one was her last. She was stalwart and brave, gentle and sweet, until
the very end. I miss her very much.
Above all, I am forever appreciative of my life partner, Ted Worth, and
of our children, Devon Worth and Narnia Worth. Choosing to have chil-
dren was a decision to change our lives forever—and I’m so glad we did.

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you
life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy
seed may live.
—Deuteronomy 30:19.

Why Have Children?

I suspect that most people eventually ask themselves the question “Why
have children?” at least once or twice during their lives.
Back when I was much younger than I am now, I was trying to decide
whether I wanted to have children or not. I eventually did choose to have
two children, whom I adore. I am fortunate and blessed to have them.
Along the way, I learned a few things about the decision whether to have
First, if you wait to have children until you are absolutely sure that it
is the right decision, then you may wait forever, and you may never have
Second, as Onora O’Neill remarks, a decision to have a child is not
merely a choice to beget or bear a child, but rather a decision “to under-
take the far longer and more demanding task of bringing up a child or
arranging for its upbringing, to at least that level which will minimally
fit the child for independent adult life in its society” (1979, 26). But you
cannot know ahead of time what it will be like to become a parent or
what sort of child you will have. You cannot entirely know what is good
and what is hard about the process of creating and rearing until well after
you have the child.
And third, the decision to have a child is a decision to change your
life forever. It is irreversible and for that reason more significant than
2    Chapter 1

most other life decisions, including those related to education, roman-

tic commitments, work, or geographical location. As one author puts
it, “Motherhood is a threshold that, once crossed, cannot be eradicat-
ed.╯.╯.╯.╯Ironically, it’s like death—‘the bourn from which no traveler re-
turns’ as Hamlet says. In becoming a mother, a woman goes to a new
place” (Fertile 2006, 187).
Choosing whether to have children may not seem like the sort of deci-
sion that is deserving or even capable of analysis. The novelist Margaret
Laurence once wrote, “I don’t really feel I have to analyse my own mo-
tives in wanting children. For my own reassurance? For fun? For ego-
satisfaction? No matter. It’s like (to me) asking why you want to write.
Who cares? You have to, and that’s that” (quoted in Sullivan 1998, 244).
Philosopher Diana Tietjens Meyers similarly observes, “When asked why
they want or don’t want to have children, most people are flummoxed.
Highly articulate individuals lose their fluency, grope for words, and
stumble around, seizing on incompatible explanations and multiplying
justifications” (2001, 752).
How one decides whether to have children and the ethics of choosing
to procreate are topics that I have been pondering for decades.1 In this
book, I explore questions that are at the heart of the “why have chil-
dren?” issue. I am asking what we might talk about if we were not “flum-
moxed” and inarticulate about having children.

Why Choosing to Have Children Is an Ethical Issue

In contemporary Western culture, it ironically appears that one needs to

have reasons not to have children, but no reasons are required to have
them. People who are childless2 are frequently and rudely criticized and
called to account for their situation. One woman who wrote about her
decision not to procreate was “denounced as bitter, selfish, un-sisterly, un-
natural, evil” (Kingston 2009, 39). It is assumed that if individuals do not
have children, it is because they are infertile, they are too selfish, or they
have just not yet gotten around to it. In any case, they owe their interlocu-
tor an explanation. They cannot merely have decided not to procreate.
In contrast, no one says to a newly pregnant woman or the proud father
of a newborn,3 “Why did you choose to have that child? What are your
reasons?” The choice to procreate is not regarded as needing any thought
or justification.
Introduction    3

Indeed, the philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse says, “Just as a special

context is needed to make sense of ‘What do you want to have health (or
knowledge, or pleasure or virtue) for?’ so is one needed to make sense of
‘What do you want to have children for?’. Unions are ‘blessed’ not cursed
with issue; those who have children are ‘favoured by fortune’; the child-
less are ‘unfortunate’; to be unable to have children is a lack, a privation,
a misfortune” (1987, 309).4 In other words, Hursthouse thinks it does
not make sense, outside of special contexts, to inquire into the motives
or reasons for having children. This view suggests that having children is
the default position; not having children is what requires explanation and
These implicit assumptions, I suggest, are the opposite of what they
ought to be. The so-called burden of proof—or what I would call the
burden of justification—should rest primarily on those who choose to
have children. That is, the choice to have children calls for more careful
justification and reasoning than the choice not to have children simply
because in the former case a new and vulnerable human being is brought
into existence whose future may be at risk.
Thus, I think Laurence’s “Who cares?” attitude is mistaken. The lack of
acknowledgment that childbearing can be a moral choice may be due to
its assimilation to other processes thought to be normal parts of human
life—for example, the phenomena of “falling in love” or being sexually
attracted to another person. These aspects of human life are often regard-
ed as the product of drives or instincts not amenable to ethical evaluation.
For example, James Lenman claims that asking why we want children is
“foolish,” for “it is partly just because we’re programmed that way much
as we are for sex. It just seems to be a part of our biological dispensation
that most of us aspire to parenthood, feel pleased when we attain it and
are more or less unhappy when it passes us by. It’s not altogether a matter
for rational consideration” (2004a, 325).
Some people, women in particular, believe that there is a “biological
clock” inside them that generates a deep drive to have a child. It ap-
pears to be more than a simple desire to have a child; it is felt more like
a biological force and is therefore very compelling. This drive is some-
times explained in evolutionary terms: our very biological constitution
determines that we bear children. The popular press likes to refer to the
existence of a supposed “mommy gene.” Biologist Lonnie Aarssen writes
4    Chapter 1

about an apparently nongendered “parenting drive,” which he describes

as “an explicit desire to have children in the future” and which involves
“an anticipated experience of contemporaneous pleasure derived directly
from ‘real-time’ parenthood per se” (2007, 1772).
The questions we should ask are whether such a desire is either im-
mune to or incapable of analysis and why this desire, unlike virtually
all others, should not be subject to ethical assessment. There are many
urges apparently arising from our biological nature that we nonetheless
should choose not to act upon or at least to be very careful about acting
upon. Even if Aarssen is correct in postulating a “parenting drive,” such
a drive would not be an adequate reason for the choice to have a child.
Naturalness alone is not a justification for action, for it is still reasonable
to ask whether human beings should give in to their supposed “parent-
ing drive” or resist it. Moreover, the alleged naturalness of the biological
clock is belied by those growing numbers of women who apparently do
not experience it or do not experience it strongly enough to act upon it.
As Leta S. Hollingworth wisely noted almost a century ago, “There could
be no better proof of the insufficiency of maternal instinct as a guaranty
of population than the drastic laws which we have against birth control,
abortion, infanticide, and infant desertion” (1916, 25).5
After all, human beings are thoroughly social entities. Our sheer sur-
vival means we have been socialized; we live not as individual “islands,
entire of ourselves,” in John Donne’s words, but as a “part of the main,”
an acculturated segment of the whole that is humanity. Because we are
social beings, we do not just see the world; we instead see the world as
we have learned to see it and as we sometimes choose to see it. All human
behavior (except perhaps simple reflex actions, such as the movement of
the leg in response to a hammer tap on the knee) is a reaction to the world
as perceived. Once past the age of early infancy, we do not just respond
like automatons to inner promptings. Instead, what and how we perceive
and feel are at least in part a function of our experience and our learning.
In seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, or smelling something, we are engaged
in a process of interpretation, a process that we have gradually learned as
part of our socialization into our particular culture.
The inevitability of interpretation applies to our inner as well as our ex-
ternal environment. Thus, for example, if I experience a certain fluttering
in my midsection, I may variously interpret it as anxiety, fear, anticipation,
Introduction    5

happiness, or just the need for a snack. Whatever inner promptings we

may experience, they “always already” contain a social message, and they
are “always already” open to reinterpretation. This description applies to
the desire to have a child. Because of the inevitability of interpretation, it
does not make sense to blame or credit instinct as the source of behaviors
such as having children.
If we fail to acknowledge that the decision whether to have children is
a real choice that has ethical import, then we are treating childbearing as
an unavoidable fate and a mere expression of biological destiny. Instead
of seeing having children as something that women do, we will continue
to see it as something that simply happens to women or as something that
is merely “natural.” But whatever our biological inclinations may be, we
do have some control over our fertility, and the rapidly declining birthrate
in most parts of the world is evidence of that fact.
But I myself stressed at the beginning of this chapter that there are
many things about having children that one cannot know until one actu-
ally has them. It might similarly be argued that one cannot know what a
childless life will be like until one commits to living it. Given the unknow-
ability of the outcomes of a decision to have a child or not have a child, it
may seem unfair to elevate the decision to the level of ethics.
However, I would argue that many significant ethical decisions are
similar to this particular decision: we cannot know or know well all the
possible outcomes of the choices we consider. Some things do just have
to be experienced. Nonetheless, the indeterminate results of human free-
dom do not relieve us of the responsibility to consider carefully the moral
aspects of our decisions. Moreover, although our own experiences of and
reactions to having a child or remaining childless may be difficult to pre-
dict, it is possible to observe the effects on other people who have made
those decisions. We are surrounded by people who have had children or
have chosen not to. As with many important life decisions, we can learn
something about the nature of the choices by observing others who have
already made them. So the difficulty of making the choice whether to
have a child or not and the unknowability of the outcome in one’s own
case do not preclude seeing procreation as an ethical decision.
Nevertheless, it might be objected that the question whether to repro-
duce or not is merely prudential, not ethical—that it is like other major
life decisions, such as whom to marry (or whether to marry), where to
6    Chapter 1

live, what career to choose, and so on. These decisions affect primarily the
chooser’s welfare; hence, they are not inherently ethical issues.
But I suggest that virtually every area of human life has ethical dimen-
sions, including seemingly pragmatic choices of what to eat, what form
of transportation to use, how to heat or cool one’s home, and so on.
We can no longer assume that so-called private life is only personal and
therefore in principle immune to ethical examination. Questions about
choosing whether to have children are of course prudential in part; that
is, they are in part practical in nature, and they are concerned about what
is or is not in one’s own interests. But they are also ethical questions, for
they are about whether to bring a person (in some cases more than one
person) into existence—and that person cannot, by the very nature of the
situation, give consent to being brought into existence. Such questions
therefore profoundly affect the well-being both of existing persons (the
potential parents, siblings, grandparents, and all the other people with
whom the future child may interact) and of potential persons.
Children are both vulnerable and dependent; they will have a “lifelong
emotional interdependence” with their parents (Cassidy 2006, 44). Pro-
creation decisions are about whether to take on responsibility for a new
life or new lives. Questions about choosing to procreate are also closely
tied to how we define our own lives and how we interact with our social
and physical environments.
These decisions also have profound implications for the community or
communities in which we live. Mianna Lotz argues, “There exists a (gen-
erally unacknowledged) distinctly collective interest in procreation being
undertaken with a seriousness, intent and purposiveness that reflects and
expresses concern or regard for the moral community itself, understood
at its broadest level as comprising both moral agents and moral subjects.”
Lotz 2008b, 9, her emphasis). This collective interest requires us to “relin-
quish our relatively recent yet now widespread preoccupation with procre-
ation as principally, even exclusively, a private and individual matter. . . .
Questions of procreative morality are not posed exclusively within the
sphere of private individual morality or the procreator–child relationship,
but always fall also within the scope of collective morality” (2008b, 12).
Lotz suggests several possible explanations of why our specific reasons
for procreating matter morally. One possibility is that our reasons are
“predictive of the quality of parenting, and derivatively of the quality of
Introduction    7

life or welfare of the future child” (2008a, 294). However, Lotz says, the
empirical information available does not suggest much of a connection
between “procreative motivations” and “parenting capacity.” Instead, fac-
tors such as parental mental ill health, domestic violence, alcohol and
drug abuse, and socioeconomic deprivation better predict bad parenting,
including the abuse and neglect of children (2008a, 295).
But notice that some of these factors might in certain cases also affect
parental motivations. For example, a woman who is the target of domes-
tic violence might want to have a child because of the illusion that doing
so will eliminate the abuse. Or a woman who is addicted to alcohol might
think that having a child will somehow help her to stop drinking. Because
children generally do not solve their parents’ problems, the implausibil-
ity of these reasons suggests that a motive for procreation might in some
cases predict potential problems in how the child is treated. That is, some
parental motivations might be indirect predictors of bad parenting. In
chapter 5, I argue that at least one motivation for parenting—the quest
for a “savior sibling” for an existing child who is ill—does have a sub-
stantial effect on how the new baby will be treated. More generally, we
cannot be indifferent to the potential implications of procreative motives
for parenting behavior.
A more plausible explanation, Lotz says, for why our reasons for hav-
ing children matter lies in what children “express”: the “meaning or mes-
sage” (whether it is intended or not) that is conveyed by one’s procreative
motivation, whether it is conveyed to family members, to people outside
the family, or even to the child herself (2008a, 297). I agree that our pro-
creative motivations may have this signaling effect. And even if this par-
ticular effect is small, our motives for procreating (or not) remain morally
significant for the other reasons I have suggested.
In this book, then, I investigate not only what actual reasons women
and men might have for procreating or what reasons they may say they
have, but also reasons that people do not recognize or that they fail to
acknowledge. So in part I am attempting to recover those reasons. But
this investigation is normative rather than empirical; it is concerned with
values and not only with facts. Many of the standard reasons for procre-
ation are, I think, mistaken, but they are worth attending to for the sake
of what can be learned about whether there are good reasons (as well
as bad ones) for having children and, if so, what they might be. When it
8    Chapter 1

comes to choosing whether to have children or not, there is a moral right

and wrong to the choice or at least a moral better and worse.
My aim, I hasten to add, is not to argue for policing people’s procre-
ative motives or for creating disapproval (or approval, for that matter)
of particular procreative decisions. I’m not interested in being a moral
disciplinarian. Nor am I interested in telling people what they ought to
do or what I think is right for them to do. My aim is simply to explore
some ways in which we might think systematically and deeply about a
fundamental aspect of human life.
And I want to insist that this aspect is something about which we
can, do, and should think. Although choosing to have children or not to
have children may involve many feelings, motives, impulses, memories,
and emotions, it can and should also be a subject for careful reflection.
Whereas in the past procreation was not a matter to which women’s will
or ideas or decisional capacity had much application, now it is some-
thing that women can potentially control, that they can make truly their
own. As Lori Leibovich points out, “Couples can opt out of parenthood,
women can have children into their fifties, single women can procreate
on their own, and gays and lesbians can start families—or not. All of the
old rules about childbearing no longer apply” (2006, xv). Moreover, the
decision whether to have a biologically related child or not is one that
may be made repeatedly over a period of years. Many women (and men)
do not simply choose once and for all whether to become parents; rather,
they make decisions about their life goals and parenting plans on several
occasions, including during pregnancy itself.

The Gendered Nature of the “Why Have Children?” Issue

Any discussion of the ethics of procreation must include feminist perspec-

tives because choosing whether to have children is gendered; it cannot
be discussed as if men’s and women’s very different roles in procreation
are irrelevant to the issue. Some parts of the discussion must be unique
to women themselves because of women’s role—despite recent techno-
logical developments—in conception and gestation. For a woman, the
decision whether to have a child may include the decision whether to
conceive a child; whether, once it is conceived, to carry it to term; and
whether, once it is born, to rear it. A woman6 may (that is, has the ability
Introduction    9

to) accept or reject motherhood at any of these three stages; hence, the
reproductive decision she makes is not a unitary once-and-for-all choice,
but rather an ongoing process of assenting to or rejecting motherhood.7
In this book, I focus primarily on the decision whether to conceive or
not. This book is not about abortion or about choosing to give up one’s
child for adoption. Nonetheless, I make a few comments about abortion
in chapters 7 and 8.
Unlike men, who can literally walk away from the results of their pro-
creative behavior, women must literally bear the procreative consequenc-
es of their heterosexual activity. To prevent conception, the woman is the
one who must worry most about using contraception successfully; all
forms of contraception lodge in or are ingested by her body, and she runs
the health risks that some forms of contraception create. It is the woman
who undergoes the physical consequences of conception and pregnancy.
Even if she has an abortion and hence decides against motherhood (at
least of the particular individual the fetus would eventually otherwise
become), she must bear the moral, pragmatic, and medical weight of
making that decision. If she continues the pregnancy, she must care for
herself as her body changes radically and must take into account all the
consequences of her actions for the fetus. During labor and delivery, she
undergoes an experience that can be uniquely demanding and often se-
verely painful.
Just as important, women are still defined socially in terms of their
relationship to children. Hence, the context of the procreation decision is
political—that is, it is imbued with differences in power, authority, pres-
tige, wealth, and future prospects. Although considerable progress has
been achieved in the past century, most of the responsibility for children
is still automatically assumed to rest upon mothers rather than upon fa-
thers. Women much more than men pay the price of bad decisions to bear
children, whether that price is in terms of the women’s education, their
employment, their money-making potential, their health and the care they
receive for it, their relationships, or their personal fulfillment. Because the
context of procreation is political, reproductive decision making cannot
realistically be discussed outside of a feminist framework. That frame-
work must include a deep understanding of the differences gender creates
in human lives—differences in personal experiences, belief systems, mate-
rial resources, access to power, and opportunities. Later chapters show
10    Chapter 1

that failing to take seriously the gendered nature of society, including our
procreative behavior, results in analyses of procreative choices that are
not only unrealistic, but also profoundly immoral.
In order for any procreative decision to have ethical significance, the
woman involved must have moral agency, authority, and freedom. A
woman’s choice whether to procreate can be made independently of be-
ing in a relationship with a man—indeed, with the assistance of insemi-
nation, it can be made independently even of any sexual interaction with
a man. Nonetheless, the ethics of men’s reproductive decisions is also
interestingly complex and worth considering, comprising not only the de-
cision whether to take part in conception, but also whether to support the
woman’s pregnancy and delivery and whether to raise the child. Meyers
points out that “many child-bearing decisions are collaborative decisions
that bring into play the peculiar psychodynamics of particular couples
and, in many cases, the power imbalances that shadow heterosexual re-
lationships as well” (2001, 744). I believe she is right, but I do not focus
directly on the power imbalances themselves. I instead assume a situation
in which women, whether in a relationship or not, are able to be self-
determining decision makers. I do not think this assumption is farfetched;
indeed, many women, though certainly not all, with access to effective
contraception are able to make autonomous procreative decisions. The
rapidly declining birth rate in every culture in which women have good
access to education and health care is evidence of their capacity to make
such decisions. In doing so, they may collaborate with another person,
male or female, in making procreative decisions, or they may make these
decisions alone. Meyers is considerably more pessimistic than I, arguing,
“While it would be wrong to claim that no woman ever makes a fully au-
tonomous reproductive decision—either to have children or not to have
them—the evidence of women’s testimony suggests that the women who
do are exceptional” (2001, 746, my emphasis). I’m not convinced she’s
right, for as philosopher Lisa Cassidy observes, “Even though . . . pres-
sures [religious, legal, and cultural] may subject many of us to emotional
strain, it would be wrong to say the very existence of such social pres-
sures wholly co-opts every reproductive choice we make” (2006, 42, my
However, I would not go as far as Corinne Maier, the author of a sar-
donic book that offers “forty good reasons not to have children” (Maier
Introduction    11

2007). Maier claims, “Ever since the pill and the IUD, most of the children
who have been born have been wanted children. They are no longer the
unavoidable consequence of a sexual act but the product of willpower
under scientific management. The unforeseen has been eliminated. Long
live planning!” (2007, 5, her emphasis).8 The notion that most babies,
even in the West, are the outcome of careful planning assisted by “scien-
tific management” is implausible, though. Many teen mothers and moth-
ers of a little “baby bonus” arriving in their menopausal years can attest
to its falsehood.
Procreation is not always a choice. In a few cases, a couple may want
one child but end up with multiples (particularly if they have used the
“scientific management” of in vitro fertilization [IVF] with the implanta-
tion of multiple embryos); hence, one child is chosen, but the others are
not, even if they are not actively unwanted. In some cases, contraception
is simply not used, whether because it is not available, because the indi-
viduals are unaware of it or the need for it, or because of a failure to take
responsibility for birth control. In other cases, heterosexual intercourse is
voluntary, but although children are not wanted contraceptive methods
are inadequate or are incorrectly used. And sometimes conception is not
chosen because sex is the result of coercion or violence.
All of these facts are deeply problematic. In some of these cases, there
is no moral responsibility, as, for example, when multiples result “natu-
rally”—that is to say, without the intervention of reproductive technol-
ogy. There is sometimes moral culpability on the part of both partners
(for example, when contraception is omitted out of laziness or misused
out of culpable ignorance). But in cases of rape or cases where the man
refuses to use contraception and the woman acquiesces out of fear, there
is a clear violation of the woman’s rights and integrity. Moreover, there is
a growing social scientific and philosophical body of evidence about the
various social forces that have acted, primarily on women,9 to induce or
compel people to have children or in some cases to persuade or prevent
them from having children. The literature on pronatalism, antinatalism,
and women’s autonomy (e.g., Hollingworth 1916; Peck and Senderowitz
1975; Gimenez 1983; Meyers 2001) is fascinating. Although it is undeni-
able that procreation is often unchosen, I am nonetheless interested in
cases where whether to have children is voluntary.
12    Chapter 1

I am therefore setting aside any discussion of childlessness that is not

deliberately chosen. That is not to say that unchosen childlessness is not
a topic of interest in itself, including as it does issues related to infertility,
women’s relationships with men, and socioeconomic status, among oth-
ers. But I am interested in cases where a true choice is made.
Ethical questions arise both in procreating one’s own children and in
adopting. Both are interesting and important topics, and they have some
themes in common. Ethically speaking, however, the two are not entirely
the same, largely because in the case of adoption the child already exists
(or at least is in utero), whereas in the case of procreation one is decid-
ing whether to bring a child into existence.10 In adoption, there are also
several social policy issues—such as the nationality of the baby, the role
that religion and race should or should not play, the adoptive parents’ age
and sex/gender, their supposed fitness for parenting, and so on—that are
different or at least thought to be different from the issues about having
one’s own biologically related child. Much has been written about the
ethics of adoption, and it is a huge topic in its own right. Rather less has
been written, as far as I can tell, about the general ethical dimensions
of procreating—a choice that millions of people presumably make quite
Self-help books on the market purport to assist would-be parents in
making a practical choice about whether to have children. There are also
informal discussions in nonphilosophical books, on Web sites, in news-
papers and magazines, and in blogs. Yet despite the significance of bio-
logical offspring both to an individual’s self-concept and life plans and to
the broader community’s well-being, the ethical nature of this choice is
seldom recognized, even—or especially—by philosophers.
There is an extensive academic literature11 about the use of IVF, egg
and embryo donation, and pregnancy. There is also considerable debate
about choosing whether to procreate when there is a strong possibility
that the resulting child(ren) will have physical or mental impairments (I
return to this issue in chapter 8). But although bioethicists have had much
to say about “new” reproductive technologies and practices, about pro-
creation and disability, and about pregnancy and childbirth, they appear
to assume that simply choosing whether to procreate is a pragmatic deci-
sion, not one with moral repercussions. And although population ethi-
cists discuss abstract utilitarian issues concerning overpopulation, quality
Introduction    13

of life, and how many people there should be in the world, they usually
fail to explore the “ why have children?” question as an individual moral
issue for which multiple arguments, for and against, are relevant.12 I be-
lieve these discussions are radically incomplete, and this book shows how
this large gap in philosophical thought can be filled.
I focus primarily on the choice to procreate via heterosexual inter-
course or insemination, but not via other technologies. I am concerned
not so much with how people do or ought to procreate, as with whether
they should procreate and how many children, if any, it is morally legiti-
mate to have. (The latter is in effect a question about repeated “wheth-
ers”—whether to have a first child, whether to have a second child,
whether to have a third child, and so on.) Nonetheless, issues related to
“assisted reproduction” using reproductive technologies cannot be en-
tirely ignored. Let me give just one example for now. To the extent that
ectogenesis (growth of a fetus outside the uterus) becomes possible and
available, it may dramatically change the “why have children?” question,
for pregnancy (or at least part of pregnancy) would no longer be neces-
sary.13 If ectogenesis becomes widely and readily available, it may have
wide-ranging effects on our ideas about rights and obligations with re-
spect to procreation (I discuss this possibility further in chapter 3).
In discussing the ethics of choosing whether to procreate, my focus is
primarily on the context of twenty-first century North America. The book
is not about legal issues concerning procreation. Nonetheless, there is a
relationship. First, the laws of the society in which one lives may either
constrain or encourage one’s procreative decisions; the legal environment
is part of the context that needs to be considered when individuals are
deciding whether to reproduce. Second, one’s conclusions about the ethics
of choosing whether to procreate may have implications for what the law
should be. So, for example, if there are certain rights with respect to pro-
creation, then society’s legal framework may need to reflect and reinforce
those rights. Existing reproductive laws may well be illegitimate and in
need of modification or abolition. More generally, a society’s social poli-
cies should support morally justified reproductive needs and choices and
provide assistance in acting on them. Individuals making choices about
procreation should not and cannot be regarded as acting in a social void,
independent of other people and relationships or outside of the broader
culture in which they live.
14    Chapter 1

Main Questions

At least six general ethical questions should be considered in the ethics of

choosing whether to have children:
1.╇ What are good reasons for having a child?
2.╇ Under what conditions is having children morally justified?
3.╇ Do women ever have a moral obligation14 to have a child?
4.╇ What are good reasons for not having a child?
5.╇ Under what conditions is having a child not morally justified?
6.╇ Do women ever have a moral obligation not to have a child?
Notice that these questions are quite distinct. You might, for example,
have good reasons to have a child without having any obligation to have
a child. You might have good reasons not to have a child without having
an obligation not to have that child. For example, one of your good rea-
sons for having a child might be that you are “good with” children. But
that fact in itself does not give you an obligation to have a child. One of
your good reasons for not having a child may be the fact that you have
a demanding career, but that reason in itself does not mean you have an
obligation not to have a child.
In discussing these six questions, I for the most part set aside ques-
tions about what kind of child to have. An extensive literature discusses,
pro and con, the ethics of choosing to have particular sorts of children,
whether by embryo selection, cloning, or genetic enhancement (e.g., J.
Harris 2007). Such questions are complex and fascinating. But this book
examines the choice prior to deciding what kind of child to have and is
concerned simply with whether to have a child or not. The discussion of
children’s own characteristics arises primarily in chapters 7 and 8, when I
discuss the potential obligation not to have children.

Looking Ahead

The first important consideration in answering the six main questions

is reproductive rights, in particular the reproductive rights of women.
Chapter 2 is devoted to canvassing the scope and limits of reproductive
rights with respect to the ethics of choosing to have children. I distinguish
between the right to reproduce and the right not to reproduce, and I
Introduction    15

suggest that there are two different types of right to reproduce. I argue
that simply appealing to reproductive rights by itself does not constitute
a complete justification for choosing to have children. Yet acknowledg-
ing and respecting women’s reproductive rights is essential to protecting
women from procreative exploitation. In chapter 3, I discuss the situation
in which prospective biological parents disagree about whether to con-
tinue a pregnancy that has already been initiated. Whose wishes should
prevail? Is there a solution that attends to the interests of both prospective
Chapters 4 and 5 are concerned with reasons for having children. The
various purported justifications for having children that I investigate de-
rive from historical sources, from contemporary culture, and, in a few
cases, from philosophical debates. One list of putative reasons, for ex-
ample, comes from a study undertaken by a then-philosophy graduate
student, Leslie Cannold, of childless and so-called child-free women in
the United States and Australia. The reasons these women suggested for
having children include “the desire for the responsibility and commitment
children require, the desire to take risks and to face new life challenges, to
satisfy and/or keep their partner, to fulfil their (positively viewed) imag-
ined future as a mother, . . . to love and to be loved by a child, to confirm
their femininity and adulthood, to remain ‘in-step’ with their peers, to
avoid loneliness, to affirm existing relationship bonds (like those with
their own mothers), and to find existential meaning and fulfillment in
their lives” (2003, 279).
For the most part, these reasons fall into one or the other of two famil-
iar categories of ethical theory: deontology and consequentialism.15
Deontologists believe that certain acts or the practices and rules to
which these acts are related—for example, keeping a promise—are right
in themselves and that other acts—for example, murder—are wrong in
themselves, independent of the consequences of the acts. Outcomes are
not what make our choices morally justified; it is their conformity to cer-
tain moral rules. If you are a deontologist, you regard it as important to
make the “why have children?” decision on the basis of doing what is in-
herently right and avoiding doing what is inherently wrong. Deontologi-
cal reasons include what are, for some people, core values: the values of
lineage, name, and property; religious duties; marital and familial duties;
and even duties to the state. I discuss these reasons in chapter 4.
16    Chapter 1

By contrast, consequentialism is the ethical theory that the rightness

and wrongness of actions are entirely a function of their outcome. If you
are a consequentialist, you regard it as important to make the “why have
children?” decision on the basis of the anticipated consequences of having
a child or not having a child. You would try to minimize the harmful con-
sequences and to maximize, or at least to optimize, the good consequenc-
es. So, for example, some people have said that the justification for having
children lies in benefits to the society or the benefits to the would-be par-
ents and other members of the family, such as would-be grandparents and
already-existing siblings. I discuss these reasons in chapter 5. Together,
chapters 4 and 5 show that the reasons typically given for having children
are not very strong and are insufficient to constitute an obligation to
procreate. Indeed, most typical justifications for procreation implicitly or
explicitly involve using women or children for others’ purposes.
Now some might say that even if most reasons for having children
are inadequate, there is usually at least one important and valid conse-
quentialist reason for procreation: that children themselves are benefited
by coming into existence. This idea is controversial. Some philosophers
believe that individuals are neither benefited nor harmed by coming into
existence and that, as a result, all reasons for procreation must necessar-
ily be “other referring”; that is, they cannot have anything to do with the
child’s well-being because before being created, no one exists who can be
affected by coming into existence. Other philosophers argue that coming
into existence has the potential to be a benefit, but it can also be a harm,
particularly if the child is born into severe poverty or abuse. Indeed, in
a recent book tellingly titled Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of
Coming into Existence, philosopher David Benatar argues vehemently
that “coming into existence is always a serious harm” (2006, 1, emphasis
added). If he is correct, then there appears to be a well-nigh insuperable
reason that makes having children morally wrong. I think he is mistaken.
In chapter 6, I point out various problems in Benatar’s arguments and
suggest that it is not always “better never to have been.”
In chapter 7, I consider some possible reasons not to have children,16
which are mostly consequentialist in nature, and I discuss whether there
are cases where one might have an obligation not to have children. Poten-
tial reasons for the moral wrongness of having children include concerns
such as the repressive effect of motherhood on women within cultures
Introduction    17

where being a woman is still a social disadvantage and the dangers of

bringing a child into a severely impoverished, oppressive, or perilous so-
cial environment or of exposing a child to war or to life-threatening en-
vironmental threats. In chapter 8, I discuss the complicated questions of
whether the risk of passing on serious disease or physical or mental im-
pairments generates a responsibility not to procreate and whether persons
with impairments of their own can justifiably choose to procreate.
On a global scale, the dangers of procreation go far beyond the in-
dividual: they include growing overpopulation and the strain on planet
Earth’s carrying capacity. The “why have children?” decision is, therefore,
a big issue, having to do with fundamental institutions such as education
and health care, the way we do business, our stewardship of the environ-
ment, our consumption of resources, and our care for each other. It more
broadly raises questions about the value of humanity and the future of the
planet. Should we care whether the human race persists or be sanguine
about the possibility of human extinction? Both overpopulation and the
possibility of extinction are the focus of chapter 9. Our procreative reflec-
tions raise deep-seated issues about the importance of human existence
and the value of what we do and who we are, with all our frailties as well
as our virtues.
Based on the discussion in the first nine chapters, I come to the conclu-
sion that an approach to the ethics of choosing to have children that relies
on reproductive rights, on deontological reasons, or on consequentialist
reasoning is inadequate or incomplete. In chapter 10, I examine the pos-
sibility that the procreation decision, weighty as it is, ought to be seen as
a kind of wager. Rejecting that approach, I then explore what procreation
means to human beings in terms of our central values and our sense of
identity. In becoming a parent, one not only creates a child but also re-cre-
ates oneself. To become a biological parent is to generate a new relation-
ship—not just the genetic one, but a psychological, physical, intellectual,
and moral one. I conclude by exploring the nature of the parent–child
relationship at its best and argue that the formation of that relationship is
the best possible reason for choosing to have a child.
Reproductive Freedom, Autonomy, and
Reproductive Rights

The ground of the right to become a parent is indeed the interests of the potential
parents. Becoming a parent is something that lends shape and meaning to one’s
life and often to a life that one shares with another parent; and evidence suggests
that the interest is one that is very widely shared. So it is a natural candidate to
ground a right. That right cannot be absolute, for two reasons: first, the standard
feasibility test may in some cases be a problem, and it would be unreasonable to
demand that unlimited medical resources be devoted to solving it; second, there
are issues about the suitability of potential parents that worried (for example) J. S.
Mill, who believed that the responsibilities of parenthood were beyond the capac-
ity of some potential parents. So not everyone can, or should, become a parent.
—Sarah Hannan and Richard Vernon, Parental Rights

There are three main reasons for starting this exploration of the ethics
of procreation with an examination of rights. First, moral rights are fun-
damental to much ethical debate, and reproductive rights have typically
been emphasized in traditional discussions of procreative issues such as
abortion and IVF. But as the quotation from Sarah Hannan and Rich-
ard Vernon suggests, reproductive rights are more complex than is often
recognized. It is therefore necessary to delineate the scope and limits of
reproductive rights; this discussion provides background for the rest of
the book. Second, some people might assume that deciding to have a child
is easily justified on the grounds that doing so is simply an expression of
reproductive rights.1 I examine whether this assumption is correct. Third,
like many other rights, reproductive rights may also play a protective role,
providing a moral defense against social and legal demands for certain
kinds of procreative behavior. If a person has a right to do X, then it is
morally wrong to prevent the person from doing X. If a person has a right
not to do Y, then it is morally wrong to force the person to do Y. The pro-
tective function of reproductive rights must be clarified.
20    Chapter 2

In this chapter, I develop a taxonomy of reproductive rights—what

they are, how they are justified, and what their limits might be. My focus
here is on moral rights, not legal rights. A moral right is an entitlement
that we have good reason to accept, an entitlement that is an expression
of one’s humanity and that belongs to an individual by virtue of her or
his being a human person. A moral right may or may not be legally rec-
ognized; that is, a moral entitlement may or may not be encoded within
the laws of the state in which an individual lives, but it is no less real
and morally significant even if it is not recognized by the state (Kates
2004). For example, the 1994 United Nations International Conference
on Population and Development (UNICPD) affirmed “the basic right of
all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number,
spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and
means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and
reproductive health. It also includes the right of all to make decisions
concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence as
expressed in human rights documents” (quoted in Kates 2004, 57). Even
in the most repressive regimes, where there are few or no reproductive
services or protections, individuals nonetheless still possess moral repro-
ductive rights, despite their not being legally recognized.
I both identify our moral reproductive rights and discuss the kinds of
state resources, services, and protections that those rights may indicate.
A state that provides the resources, services, and protections supported
by our moral reproductive rights is in fact according to its citizens legal
reproductive rights, even if those legal rights are not formally stated and
Carol A. Kates claims that there is no need to recognize any special
fundamental reproductive rights; we can be content with “a general right
to liberty” (2004, 63). But subsuming reproductive rights under a general
right to liberty may not be adequate both because of the profound value
of reproduction to most individuals and societies as well as because of
the far-reaching impact of procreation particularly on women. We might
therefore say that reproductive rights have both a consequentialist and a
deontological foundation.
First, having children is, for many people, deeply definitive of their
identity and their life’s value. For others, remaining childless is equally
essential. Failing to have a child when one wants to be a parent can be
Reproductive Freedom, Autonomy, and Reproductive Rights    21

a source of immense sorrow and regret. Becoming a parent against one’s

wish can be a lifelong burden. Hence, the protection of procreative choic-
es by means of the recognition of reproductive rights is necessary both to
ensure that people’s lives go well and to prevent the misery, deprivation,
and even oppression that results when people have little or no control
over their procreative behavior. In addition, the well-being of children is
dependent on the recognition of reproductive rights. Children may suffer
if they are unwanted. Within families, unwanted children may be handi-
capped by scarce material resources, lack of attention, and stressed parent-
ing. Within society at large, as we know from the past, unwanted children
are likely to face inadequate provisions for their education, health care,
and eventual employment. There are thus strong consequentialist reasons
for articulating and protecting reproductive rights.
Second, women are particularly vulnerable with respect to procre-
ation. Most women are fertile from their early teens until their late forties.
Women conceive, gestate, deliver, and breastfeed their babies. Women are
still expected to be the primary caregivers for their children. As a feminist,
I therefore take women’s bodily freedom (the absence of physical, legal,
or social constraints on one’s decisions about one’s body) and autonomy
(the capacity to be self-determining, especially with respect to one’s body)
to be the sine qua non for women’s equality and full citizenship. The
deontological basis for reproductive rights is that they are indispensable
to protecting women’s personhood. Without moral recognition and legal
protection of their bodily freedom and autonomy, women are little more
than procreative slaves. It is essential to respect women’s bodily freedom
and autonomy because it is simply wrong to subject women to forced re-
production; it is wrong to use women as a means to others’ reproductive
goals. Such treatment violates their personhood. (A similar claim might
also be made about men with regard to the use of men’s gametes, but the
fact that gestation is a female condition makes respect for bodily freedom
and autonomy particularly significant for women.)
Thus, there are both consequentialist and deontological justifications
for reproductive rights. Those rights, properly delineated and understood,
provide the foundation for the ethics of procreation. They are a necessary
(though not sufficient) criterion for evaluating procreative decisions. And,
as I argue in later chapters, because reproductive rights are foundational,
they cannot be disregarded or voided.
22    Chapter 2

Nonetheless, to say that essential reproductive rights must be recog-

nized does not imply that there is an unlimited right to reproduce. Re-
spect for bodily freedom and autonomy does not constitute a license to
procreate. For example, as Onora O’Neill points out, if, like Jean-Jacques
Rousseau and his mistress, individuals simply produced infants and then
abandoned them at a foundling hospital, we would not be inclined to say
such persons were justifiably exercising their right to procreate (1979, 25).
I propose that the general idea of reproductive rights should be ana-
lyzed in terms of two distinct prima facie rights—that is, rights that are
“conditional on not being overridden by other relevant moral principles”
(Frankena and Granrose 1974, 80). These prima facie rights are the right
to reproduce and the right not to reproduce. Prima facie rights are strong
entitlements that make legitimate calls on the behavior of others—either
individuals or the state (or both)—but they are not defeasible. They can
sometimes, though perhaps only rarely, be superseded by other moral re-
quirements—for example, when rights are in conflict with each other.
Let’s look first at the right to reproduce. In my early work on repro-
ductive ethics and social policy (Overall 1987, 1993), I distinguished be-
tween two different kinds of right to reproduce: the positive or welfare
right and the negative or liberty right.

The Right to Reproduce in the Positive or Welfare Sense

The prima facie right to have children in the positive or welfare sense
is an entitlement to have a child by any means one may choose and to
be provided with all possible assistance in reproduction. Although there
arguably is such a right, and it provides important protections, it is none-
theless limited in some important ways.
Reproductive services should be seen for what they are: a category of
health care. As a category of health care, reproductive services ought to
be available to and accessible by potential patients on medical grounds.
Social discrimination in the provision of reproductive services is just as
unfair and unjustified as social discrimination in the provision of other
forms of health care, and anyone who opposes social discrimination for
the latter should oppose it for the former. Hence, an individual patient’s
gender identity, race, sexual orientation, marital status, and other identity
characteristics are not justified criteria either for providing or for refusing
Reproductive Freedom, Autonomy, and Reproductive Rights    23

medical treatment because they are not relevant to health care for the
individual’s medical condition. For example, if a married heterosexual
woman is entitled to reproductive treatment X, then so is a single woman
or a lesbian woman. The single woman and the lesbian woman should
not be denied access to donor insemination or IVF just because of their
marital status or sexuality.
In general, the social identity of potential patients is irrelevant to
whether they should be permitted reproductive services. For a number
of reasons, it is morally wrong for the medical profession to use social
identity criteria to determine who is entitled to become a parent, who is
competent to become a parent, or, for that matter, who lacks the charac-
teristics for parenthood.
First, physicians are not trained or qualified to determine who is and is
not competent to become a parent. A physician’s role is to provide medi-
cal care, not to serve as a gatekeeper to parenthood. There is no reason to
believe that physicians have a special ability to discern parenting capaci-
ties. Moreover, attempting to be such a gatekeeper would compromise
physicians’ moral responsibilities to serve their patients’ best interests be-
cause it would make reference to standards that are independent of and
even incompatible with the patient’s health care.
Second, individuals who do not seek reproductive services are not sub-
jected to any test or qualification for parenting. If there is no screening
system for prospective parents who do not need reproductive services, it
seems unjust to subject to screening those who have the misfortune of
needing medical help. Although some philosophers have argued that there
should be a licensing system for prospective parents (see, for example, Tit-
tle 2004), such a system would be a severe imposition on people’s bodily
freedom and autonomy, would be grotesquely unwieldy, would consume
enormous resources that can better be used to support good health and
good parenting, and would not likely improve the care of children.
Third, there is no clear empirical method for predicting which indi-
viduals will be good parents and which will not. Certain factors no doubt
make parenting easier (perhaps training about children’s development
and needs) or harder (serious socioeconomic deprivation). If so, then in-
stead of requiring physicians to make ad hoc predictions in individual
cases, it would be better for a society that is concerned about the quality
of parenting to provide good education, health care, and socioeconomic
24    Chapter 2

support for all its citizens, including children, parents, and prospective
Fourth, there is no empirical evidence that social identity in itself either
compromises or enhances parenting abilities. It is unjustified to generalize
about all persons with a particular identity. Contrary to social conserva-
tives’ protests, single women have been successfully rearing children in
greater and greater numbers for the past half-century. The evidence shows
that lesbians’ children turn out fine (Gartrell and Bos 2010). And, in con-
trast, some married, heterosexual parents physically and psychologically
abuse their children.
One’s age, impairments, and health history are similarly in principle
relevant to one’s eligibility for reproductive services only on medical
grounds—that is, if these characteristics demonstrably make such services
either ineffective or dangerous to the individual seeking them. It is not
up to physicians to make judgments about whether a patient’s age or im-
pairment renders her ineligible for motherhood. (In chapter 7, however,
I discuss the significance of one’s age for the moral justification of one’s
procreative choices, and in chapter 8 I say more about parenting decisions
by persons with impairments.) Thus, if a person is simply not healthy
enough to undergo a particular medical treatment, if there is little or no
prospect that the medical treatment will help the individual, or if it in
fact will even harm the individual, then it is legitimate not to provide the
treatment. For example, if the body of an older woman or a woman with
an impairment does not respond to hormonal hyperstimulation, then it
is medically unjustified to persist in attempting to extract ova from her.
The cessation of treatment would be based on empirical evidence of likely
ineffectiveness or harm, not on the mere fact that the patient is a certain
age or has a particular impairment.
Hence, the right to reproduce in the positive sense can be construed
as protecting individuals against unjustified discrimination in access to
reproductive services, which ought not to be denied to individuals on any
grounds but medical ones.
However, because the positive right to reproduce draws upon others’
material resources and services, it cannot be boundless. To what sorts of
reproductive services might a positive right to reproduce allow access?
My answer here should be considered somewhat tentative and sugges-
tive only, for much depends on two factors: a society’s general level of
Reproductive Freedom, Autonomy, and Reproductive Rights    25

affluence and the resulting availability of money and resources for health
care, and the kinds of decisions the society may make about health-care
goals and priorities. For example, societies with scarce resources are en-
titled to decide whether they will provide IVF services. In some societies,
other services may legitimately be considered more immediately valuable,
including preventive health services, pregnancy care, infant and mater-
nal care, medical treatments for various impairments, and so on. I do
not attempt here to determine how such priorities might be evaluated.
The issue is complex and difficult; debating the relative value of different
health-care goals and priorities would require a book of its own. My dis-
cussion in the rest of this section is intended simply to indicate the kinds
of considerations that would be relevant to determining the health-care
implications of the positive right to reproduce, given adequate resources
and a careful assessment of priorities.
I suggest that the right to reproduce requires minimally the provi-
sion of health-care services for healthy pregnancy and delivery, including
well-supported home birth and midwifery when these options are cho-
sen. Depending on the society’s assets and resources, the positive right to
reproduce may also entitle patients to reproductive services that allevi-
ate infertility, including the surgical repair of damaged fallopian tubes in
women, the reversal of a vasectomy in men, and, for women, intrauterine
sperm injection or trials of IVF with a willing, competent, informed, and
autonomous partner.2 All of these procedures increase the likelihood that
an individual may become a parent, although of course they do not guar-
antee anyone a baby, especially in the case of IVF, for which success rates
are still much less than 50 percent.3
A society may nonetheless be entitled to place appropriate limits on
how some reproductive services are provided. IVF is a good example.
Having access to IVF does not automatically entitle a woman to deter-
mine how the procedure will be carried out, for that issue is a medical
matter. Being provided with IVF does not give a woman patient the en-
titlement to have as many embryos as she wishes inserted into her uterus.
Although inserting a large number of embryos increases the woman’s
chances of becoming pregnant, it also exacerbates the probability of high-
er-order multiples (HOM)—triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, sextuplets,
and more. Such pregnancies are dangerous for the woman and for the
fetuses; HOMs require vastly more health-care services—during gestation
26    Chapter 2

and birth, in the neonatal period, and often beyond—than do singletons.

(Think of the case of American “Octomom” Nadya Suleman, who after
IVF ended up gestating and delivering eight fetuses.) Hence, a hospital is
entitled to set a policy limiting the number of embryos implanted—per-
haps to two or three.
Second, access to IVF does not include an automatic entitlement to use
the procedure at any age. Despite the fact that some women have become
pregnant and given birth, thanks to IVF, at the age of sixty or older, there
are good medical reasons, related to the woman’s health risks, her ability
to sustain a pregnancy, and perhaps her offspring’s prospective physical
health, not to permit IVF for every postmenopausal woman who may
want it. I am not saying that no “older” woman should ever have access
to IVF; I am simply reiterating my earlier point that health-care profes-
sionals are entitled to use medical criteria to determine the patient’s suit-
ability for the procedure. The situation must be decided on a case-by-case
basis according to the woman’s medical condition.
Third, there is no automatic entitlement to have as many individual
IVF treatments as the patient may wish for. In some cases, a large number
of treatments may turn out to be medically futile. If so, then there is a
significant question of health-care resource allocation. If a society does
determine that it will offer IVF, as I have argued, it must not discriminate
on irrelevant grounds in providing access to such services, but it is en-
titled to place limits on the number of treatments an individual woman
may have. Doing so is in part a matter of medical effectiveness, but in
part also a matter of straightforward fairness with respect to a limited
and expensive service. A woman may have no more than x treatments
simply because other women also need IVF treatments, and if one woman
has many treatments, then others will have fewer. Thus, issues of fairness
among individuals with similar needs dictate that no woman can just de-
mand a large number of IVF treatments as part of her right to reproduce
and expect automatic compliance.
So far, then, I have suggested that there is a positive right to reproduce
and that in a society with good health-care resources exercising that right
might include access to a variety of treatments intended to support preg-
nancy and birth and to enhance, repair, or restore fertility. Access to these
services should not be denied based on social identity characteristics such
as marital status or sexual orientation, nor should it be denied on the
Reproductive Freedom, Autonomy, and Reproductive Rights    27

basis of age, health status, or impairment unless the latter are medically
relevant to the provision of services.
But the right to reproduce in the positive or welfare sense has one
additional important and indefeasible limit: it does not and cannot in-
clude an entitlement to consumerlike activities such as buying and sell-
ing gametes or purchasing the services of a contract procreator because
no one has a right to the use of others’ sperm or ova or a right to have
another woman gestate and give birth to a baby for them. There can be
no entitlement to such activities because to satisfy such supposed entitle-
ments would require that one or more other people must provide bodily
products or services. There cannot be a moral requirement for anyone to
provide sperm or eggs or to serve as a gestator; such a requirement would
violate other women’s or men’s bodily freedom and autonomy.4 Respect
for women’s and men’s bodily freedom and autonomy obviates the possi-
bility of compelling some women to provide ova or to undergo pregnancy
or of compelling men to provide sperm, even to facilitate procreation by
other women.
Some individuals may (for whatever reasons, including perhaps the
dubious desire for genetic “immortality”) wish to donate their gametes
(sperm or ova). Such donations can be very helpful to people who are
struggling with infertility. But the donator cannot expect a guarantee that
the gametes will actually be used or even that a health-care facility should
have to take the gametes if there are medical reasons not to.
If a particular jurisdiction offers sperm or egg banks, donors to which
have given willing, competent, informed, and autonomous consent, then
women who are candidates for using donated sperm or eggs ought not to
be discriminated against on irrelevant grounds if they seek access to them.
But no individual has an obligation to donate or sell their gametes; hence,
no other individual has a right to be given them or buy them. If a particu-
lar society does not offer gamete donation, or if it does offer the service
and no one chooses to supply gametes, then, nonetheless, the rights of
those who may want or need others’ gametes have not been violated.
There is never a guarantee that an individual will be able to have a
baby, and it is a mistake to say that a woman (or a man) has a “right to a
baby” or a “right to a family.” This claim is true for several reasons. There
is no guarantee of obtaining a baby biologically even through the use
of one’s own gametes and pregnancy, for some women cannot conceive,
28    Chapter 2

some pregnancies end prematurely, and some births fail to yield a live
infant. But there are also no guarantees morally and politically, for people
are not entitled to keep a child, even a child that came out of their body,
whom they abuse. There is no guarantee through adoption because no
one has a right to someone else’s baby, although at times some women are
generous enough to give up their infants for adoption. There is no guaran-
tee through the use of someone else’s gametes because no one has a right
to someone else’s gametes, and no one owes an in-need person their gam-
etes. There is no guarantee through contract pregnancy because no one
has a right that a woman will provide gestational services, and no woman
owes another person the child of her pregnancy. Insofar as reproduction
for some people requires the use of and access to other individuals’ bodies
and bodily products, there is no positive right to reproduce in that man-
ner.5 Saying this does not mean that all of these activities are necessarily
wrong, only that they cannot be justified as the exercise of a moral right,
for no one has an obligation to provide gametes or gestational services.
An additional limit to the prima facie right to reproduce in the positive
sense is that individuals do not have a right to the best possible baby or
even to the kind of baby they most want. Although women certainly are
entitled to good prenatal and neonatal care, there can be no guarantees
about the characteristics of the resulting infant. Ben Bova claims, “An
individual’s desire to produce offspring that are as close to the ideal that
the parent can envision seems well within the rights of any citizen” (1998,
194). He makes this claim by contrast to the idea that a government
would be entitled to run a eugenics program, an idea that he rejects. But
individuals don’t have an entitlement to engage in their own private eu-
genics program either. Although there is a strong case for helping people
with infertility to increase their chances of procreating, the case for help-
ing people to obtain a “designer baby” is much weaker.
People are, of course, free to choose among consenting adults with
whom to reproduce—or they should be. Such decisions in themselves
have an effect on the kind of child they will have. But whether they are en-
titled to the complex genetic services—including IVF and embryo screen-
ing—that would enable them to make more precise choices is a further
issue and a complicated one. Much depends on the costs of such services
compared to other health-care costs. Societies have to make policy deci-
sions as to which kinds of health care should be provided. Consider, for
Reproductive Freedom, Autonomy, and Reproductive Rights    29

example, the possible funding of hearing aids for the hearing impaired,
prostheses for those missing all or part of a limb, and wheelchairs for
those whose mobility is reduced. It is not at all obvious that these items
are less important than funding the capacity to choose the best baby pos-
sible. Even in a nation where health care is not publicly funded, there will
still be questions as to what sorts of medical research, education, and
training should be supported and encouraged; as I pointed out earlier,
choices about health-care priorities have to be made.
The potential justification of seeking to produce the best possible baby
also depends on the reason that screening is needed. It would be far more
controversial to screen embryos for intelligence, beauty, or athletic ability
than it would ever be to screen them for the presence of diseases, such
as Tay-Sachs, that will cause unrelieved suffering. In chapter 7, I discuss
whether parents have any obligation to enhance their offspring by choos-
ing the best available embryo, and in chapter 8 I return to the topic of
prenatal screening when I explore whether there is an obligation in some
circumstances not to procreate because of the fetus’s condition.

The Right to Reproduce in the Negative or Liberty Sense

Although there are several actual and potential limits on the right to re-
produce in the positive sense, there are no comparable limits on the prima
facie right to reproduce in the negative or liberty sense. This right is the
entitlement not to be interfered with in procreation, and it is primarily
this reproductive right that is asserted in the consensus statement from
the UNICPD quoted earlier. The right to reproduce in this sense means
the freedom to decide when, where, and with whom one will have one’s
biological children and how many. Of course, no man is entitled to have
his female partner produce a baby for him, any more than a woman has
an entitlement to be given her male partner’s sperm. But if two people
agree to reproduce together using their own gametes, they are entitled not
to be interfered with or prevented by third parties.
What, then, about the right to reproduce in the negative sense with re-
spect to women in a same-sex relationship? They have the same reproduc-
tive rights as persons in heterosexual relationships; the state has no right
to prevent them from having children if they choose. But their situation is,
of course, reproductively more complex. They need the collaboration of
30    Chapter 2

one more person. As I explained earlier, no one has an entitlement to an-

other person’s reproductive gametes. But if a third person agrees willingly,
competently, and autonomously to collaborate by providing his sperm,
then women in a same-sex relationship are entitled not to be interfered
with in their decisions about when, where, and with whom to procreate
or about how many children to have.
Honoring the right to reproduce in the negative sense would also re-
quire the provision of at least a minimally healthy physical environment
and working conditions that do not damage or compromise one’s pro-
creative capacities. People are entitled to be protected from environments
and employments that are dangerous to their health, including their re-
productive health. It would also mean no interference in or limitation of
one’s biological procreative behavior. Thus, respecting the negative right
to reproduce requires that there can be no forced sterilization, no coercive
contraception,6 no forced marriage or prostitution, no racist marriage or
domestic partnership laws, no forced abortions, and no forced caesarians
(all of which are, of course, wrong on other grounds, too).

The Right Not to Reproduce

Women and men also have a clear right not to reproduce. The right not
to reproduce means that human beings are entitled not to be compelled
to reproduce against their will. No one should be compelled to give away
or sell their gametes or embryos against their will. No woman should be
compelled to undergo pregnancy or continue it against her will. This right
is implicit in what I said earlier, in discussing limits on the right to re-
produce, about the absence of entitlement to other people’s reproductive
resources and services. Indeed, I suggest that the right not to reproduce is
morally more basic than the right to reproduce, at least in the sense that it
is strongly unethical to violate one individual’s right not to reproduce in
order to serve another individual’s right to reproduce.
As I noted in chapter 1, pregnancy sometimes results because contra-
ception is simply not used, whether because it is not available or not
chosen or because the individuals are unaware of it or the need for it. In
other cases, heterosexual intercourse is voluntary, but although children
are not wanted, there is no effective contraception, or contraceptive meth-
ods are inadequate or are incorrectly used. And conception is sometimes
Reproductive Freedom, Autonomy, and Reproductive Rights    31

unchosen because it is the result of rape. Therefore, respecting the right

not to reproduce requires comprehensive education about sex and pro-
creation, access to safe and effective contraception and to timely and ef-
fective abortion services, and protection from compulsory heterosexual
intercourse, whether by assault or by forced marriage. Of course, just as
there is no guarantee that one will receive a baby after pregnancy and
birth, so also there is no guarantee that contraception will work. That is a
fact that women must always take into account. It is also a fact that men
must accept, as I show in chapter 3.
The justification for recognizing the negative right to reproduce is sim-
ply that if it is not respected, then women especially, but men too, have
no choice of or control over their biological reproductive behavior, and
therefore their bodily freedom and autonomy are violated. All women,
like men, have a right not to reproduce—that is, a right not to be forced
to reproduce, whether through sexual slavery, denial of access to contra-
ception, or lack of access to abortion.7 Because some women have histori-
cally been forced against their will into marriage or prostitution, women’s
right not to reproduce is important whatever their sexual orientation may
be. Part of what is morally wrong about forced marriage and prostitution
is that it makes women vulnerable to unwanted procreation; it violates
their right not to reproduce.
Any violation of the right not to reproduce is serious. No individual
should be forced to provide her or his gametes to another person, whether
for procreation or for research. No woman should ever be forced to un-
dergo pregnancy against her will. In the words of D. S. Hutchinson, in
unwanted pregnancy “the body is being altered for a purpose that does
not belong to the person. But this is a case where the body is not just used,
but transformed. The transformation is different in kind from the bodily
changes involved in ordinary actions, for it is a transformation of a very
special nature. It results in two people where there was previously only
one.” In unwanted pregnancy, the woman’s body “is treated as a means to
a project that is alien to [her;] it involves an alienation of the body from
the person.” It thereby undermines her integrity because “a commitment
to one’s body is given in the human condition” (1982, 71). If the right
not to reproduce is not respected, then the result is reproductive slav-
ery: the compulsory and unwilled use of people’s bodies for procreative
purposes—whether they are other individuals’ or the state’s purposes.
32    Chapter 2

(Reproductive coercion—the production of babies through the forced,

often violent use of women’s bodies—is a standard feature of enslaved so-
cieties and is part of what makes enslavement morally execrable.) People
need to be able to protect their reproductive capacities and not have them
exploited or coerced to serve purposes that are not their own. As I argued
at the beginning of this chapter, genuine reproductive freedom is one of
the essential building blocks of a just and flourishing society.


What does this discussion of reproductive rights tell us about the “why
have children?” ethical decision?
The right not to reproduce and the right to reproduce in the nega-
tive sense (the entitlement to freedom from interference) are grounded in
general human interests; people need protection from compulsory pro-
creation as much as (or perhaps even more than) they need protection
from denied procreation. The appeal to the right not to reproduce also
provides important protections to women (as well as to men) insofar as it
provides a strong prima facie argument against any obligation to procre-
ate. If a woman has a right not to reproduce, then she is prima facie not
obligated to reproduce. In chapters 4 and 5, I investigate whether there
are any factors that can create such an obligation despite the prima facie
right not to reproduce.
Moreover, the appeal to the right to reproduce in the negative sense
is inadequate to serve as a complete ethical justification for choosing to
have children because, as subsequent chapters show, many other factors
are morally relevant to procreative decisions. The fact that interfering
in an individual’s procreative behavior violates the individual’s right to
reproduce does not by itself morally justify the individual’s decision to
reproduce. At the same time, the right to reproduce in the positive sense is
limited by a variety of factors and does not guarantee a baby to anyone.
In other words, a general appeal to reproductive rights cannot be used
to vindicate a wholesale entitlement to procreate, to be given a baby, or
to parent. Among the reasons for this claim, the most obvious is that in
making the decision to procreate, a new human being will be brought into
existence. As S. L. Floyd and D. Pomerantz put it in regard to a putatively
unlimited right to self-determination, “It does not take into account the
Reproductive Freedom, Autonomy, and Reproductive Rights    33

impossibility of a being’s actual or hypothetical consent to becoming a

child” (2004, 232). Of course, by the very nature of the situation, the
prospective child cannot consent. And the impossibility of the child’s con-
sent does not make all procreation wrong. At the very least, however, the
prospective well-being of the child-to-be is surely relevant to the ethics
of choosing to have children. That issue is one to which I return several
A second reason that the right to reproduce, whether positive or nega-
tive, is not by itself sufficient to justify procreation has to do, broadly
speaking, with resource issues, including the constraints generated by the
growing human population and the planet’s limited carrying capacity. I
explore this latter set of issues in the penultimate chapter.
A third reason that the right to reproduce is not by itself sufficient to
justify procreation is provided by the need for a procreative partner. It
still takes two to make a baby, if not by sexual intercourse, then by other
means of combining egg and sperm. Several times in this chapter, I have
added the caveat that one must have a willing, informed, competent, and
autonomous reproductive partner. No one has a right to another person’s
sexual services or procreative capacities, and no one has a right of access
to another person’s gametes. No one is entitled to obtain them by force or
by subterfuge. Consent to providing reproductive capacities and gametes
is essential.
The content and structure of reproductive rights leave open the possi-
bility that there might sometimes be an obligation not to reproduce. Act-
ing on one’s rights, including the right to reproduce, is not always morally
justified. One may have the right to do something that is nonetheless not
morally justified. Reproductive rights are a necessary but not sufficient
condition for justifying choosing to have children.
Therefore, the next topic to be considered is the situation where poten-
tial parents disagree—in particular, where they disagree as to whether to
continue a pregnancy or not. In such cases, one or the other partner does
not consent to procreate. How might such disputes be resolved?
When Prospective Parents Disagree

What is the morally justified path when the two individuals in a couple
disagree about whether to continue their pregnancy or not?1 Various ap-
proaches have been proposed to resolve such disagreements. Some as-
pects of these disagreements have been explored in the recent work of
several American philosophers, and I try to make sense of what I think are
patterns in their work. Here I am not discussing the question of whether
to conceive a child or not, but rather the question of forming a morally
justifiable resolution when two people disagree, particularly in the con-
text of a pregnancy that is already in progress.
In the standard case, the two partners would be the male and the fe-
male, and that is the situation on which I focus. I sometimes refer to them
as the “inseminator” and the “gestator”—not “father” and “mother,” the
use of which I think begs the question. I should also point out, however,
that some of the issues I’m interested in here may also occur in the case of
two female partners, one of whom is pregnant.2
There are two themes to this debate: (1) the reproductive freedom
of both women and men—but especially of women because without it
women’s lives and prospects are severely limited; and (2) the insemina-
tors’ rights—or at least, inseminators’ alleged rights, which have turned
out to be the focus of much debate both in academic and nonacademic

The Disagreements and How Some Philosophers Resolve Them

Consider table 3.1. Quadrant 1 is presumably uncontroversial. For femi-

nists and others with progressive politics, Quadrant 4 also seems morally
straightforward, assuming that one is not opposed on moral grounds to
abortion3 or adoption.
36    Chapter 3

Table 3.1
Prospective Parents’ Attitudes toward Pregnancy

She wants the baby. She doesn’t want the baby.

He wants the baby. 1. Gestate and raise it. 3. ???

He doesn’t want the baby. 2. ??? 4. Abort the fetus.

Or gestate it and surrender
the infant for adoption.

In Quadrant 2, the male (the inseminator) does not want to be a parent,

but his female partner is pregnant, and she wants to be a parent. Among
other things, this means that she has no interest in having an abortion.
And in Canada and the United States, he cannot legally force her to abort.
In Quadrant 3, the male does want to be a parent, but his female partner
who is pregnant does not. She can choose to have an abortion; in Canada
and the United States, he cannot legally prevent her.
Several philosophers have recently explored the dilemmas raised
by Quadrants 2 and 3—among them Steven D. Hales (1996a, 1996b),
Elizabeth Brake (2005), Jennifer S. Bard (2006), Bertha Alvarez Man-
ninen (2007), Dien Ho (2008), and Don Hubin (2008).4 Their primary
philosophical concern is the protection of what they see as the insemina-
tor’s needs and rights rather than the protection of women’s reproductive

Resolving Quadrant 2
According to American philosopher Dien Ho, couples’ disagreements
about their reproductive plans are morally troubling because of what he
calls “procreative asymmetry” (2008, 1). The problem of “procreative
asymmetry” is that women can make unilateral procreative decisions (in-
sofar as they can legally choose, on their own, whether to continue the
pregnancy or abort), but men cannot because they can legally neither
prevent nor compel an abortion. This asymmetry generates a problematic
limitation, according to Ho, on the scope of the male’s reproductive free-
dom because men may become fathers against their will: “Considering
the harm done by allowing the asymmetry to exist (i.e., giving gestat-
ing women a unilateral right to determine procreation for their unwilling
partners), there is a moral imperative to attempt to achieve parity through
When Prospective Parents Disagree    37

some compensatory mechanism” (2008, 13–14). Steven D. Hales express-

es the problem, as he sees it, even more unambiguously:
The father, having participated in conception, cannot escape the future duties he
will have toward the child. The father can decide that he cannot afford another
child, that he is not psychologically prepared to be a parent, that a child would
hinder the lifestyle he wishes to pursue, and so on, to no avail. He is completely
subject to the decisions of the mother. If she decides to have the child, she thereby
ensures that the father has certain duties; duties that it is impossible for him to
avoid. Even more, the mother is solely in charge: If she wants to have an abortion
and the father does not want her to, she may anyway. If she does not want to have
an abortion and the father does want her to, it is permissible for her to refuse
to have one. If there is any conflict between the mother and the father here, the
mother’s wishes win out. (1996a, 8, his emphasis)

Moreover, both Dien Ho and Don Hubin are concerned about what
they see as the dangers of deceptive women.5 Both worry about the wom-
an who lies to her male partner, saying that she takes the contraceptive pill
but then conceives even though her male partner has been absolutely clear
that he does not want to have children with her (see Ho 2008, 16). Such
a woman, they say, is violating the inseminator’s reproductive freedom.6
Ho writes, “No one should be allowed to make procreative decisions for
another competent individual who is unwilling to procreate” (2008, 16,
my emphasis). Hubin also worries about cases such as that of the “pur-
loined sperm,” in which a woman offered a man oral sex provided he
used a condom. She then used the sperm from the condom to inseminate
herself (2008, 31). Hubin writes, “We do not generally hold people mor-
ally responsible for the consequences of other actions that they performed
as a result of malicious deception” (2008, 26).
With respect to resolving the disagreement in Quadrant 2, Ho dis-
tinguishes procreative autonomy from bodily autonomy. He argues that
women’s unilateral right to terminate pregnancy is an instance of the lat-
ter, not the former. Women, like other human beings, are entitled to have
dominion over their bodies (2008, 14); hence, they can obtain abortions.
Women do not, however, have procreative autonomy, he says, if that
means making unilateral procreative decisions for other people: “No one
should be allowed to make procreative decisions for another competent
individual who is unwilling to procreate” (2008, 16).
Hales also acknowledges women’s bodily autonomy. He admits that
no woman should be compelled to have an abortion against her will.
38    Chapter 3

Hence, he argues that in order to preserve what he regards as each part-

ner’s equal procreative rights, the nongestating partner (usually male, but
possibly female) has no obligation to provide support for the resulting
In order for us to satisfy our goal of achieving equality as best we can, we should
not only admit that fathers have a right to avoid future duties, but there needs
to be some mechanism by which they can, by personal fiat, exercise that right. .
. . Perhaps it will do to say that, sometime during the span of time that a mother
may permissibly abort, a father may simply declare that he refuses to assume any
future obligations. . . . Let us put it this way: A man has the moral right to decide
not to become a father (in the social, nonbiological sense) during the time that
the woman he has impregnated may permissibly abort. He can make a unilateral
decision whether to refuse fatherhood, and is not morally obliged to consult with
the mother or any other person before reaching a decision. Moreover, neither
the mother nor any other person can veto or override a man’s decision about be-
coming a father. He has first and last say about what he does with his life in this
regard. (1996a, 11–12)

The principle of equal rights requires, Hales argues, that the woman
can’t be compelled to abort a fetus that she wants and the man can’t be
compelled to raise a child he does not want. Thus, Hales interprets the
situation as a matter of respect for reproductive rights. In Hales’s view, by
means of his resolution both preferences are respected: that of the gesta-
tor who wants to have a child and that of the inseminator who does not.
In effect, the inseminator declares himself to have no moral, psychologi-
cal, social, or material connection to the resulting offspring. In the words
of George W. Harris, the man in these cases “has not given his consent to
the use of his body for the pursuit of her interest in procreation” (1986,
597). Hence, the fact that he is the biological father “is not sufficient ei-
ther to give him rights to the child or to put him under an obligation to it
or to the mother” (1986, 598 fn. 1).
Elizabeth Brake likewise argues for what she regards as complete par-
ity of reasoning between women and men: “If women’s partial responsi-
bility for pregnancy does not obligate them to support a fetus, then men’s
partial responsibility for a pregnancy does not obligate them to support
a resulting child,” particularly in a case where a man uses contraceptives
in a nonmarital relationship (2005, 56). Mel Feit, the director of the US-
based National Center for Men, similarly says that when contraception
fails, men should have a choice about whether to continue their legal and
When Prospective Parents Disagree    39

financial responsibilities to the future child. Then “women have a right

to know what that choice is as they decide how to proceed” (quoted in
Gibbs 2006). Feit calls this choice a “financial abortion” (quoted in Gibbs

Resolving Quadrant 3
In Quadrant 3, the pregnant woman does not want to be a parent, but
the man who impregnated her does. Bertha Alvarez Manninen writes, “To
have an abortion in these circumstances will probably result in great emo-
tional harm for the man, for it robs him of the child he so desperately de-
sires” (2007, 3). Manninen believes that women should not be compelled
to gestate; a man has no right that she should do so against her will.
Nonetheless, in order to resolve their disagreement, a virtuous woman
who does not want her baby should, at least in some circumstances, be
willing to take the pregnancy to term for the sake of an inseminator who
does want the baby. In effect, Manninen is advocating a form of altruistic
contract pregnancy in which the woman agrees to continue a pregnancy
(but without payment, as in the case of commercial contract motherhood)
in order to bestow a child on the biological father, a child that she her-
self does not want. So that is one proposed resolution of the conflict in
Quadrant 3.
Another possible resolution would have the couple resort to ectogen-
esis.7 Ectogenesis is the gestation of a fetus outside the female body. The
woman who does not want to be a parent may satisfy her goal not to be a
parent by having the fetus removed from her uterus; it can then be placed
in an artificial uterus to be brought to maturity for the man to raise. As
far as I know, no one has directly defended the use of ectogenesis in cases
where the inseminator wants a baby that the gestator rejects. Nonethe-
less, in recent discussions at conferences and in published papers it has
been suggested that ectogenesis will resolve or transform related dilem-
mas about care of the fetus and parental obligations. Therefore, although
ectogenesis is not yet practically possible, it is in the philosophical air (so
to speak).
And it is certainly well within the purview of Ho’s thinking; he not
only argues against prohibiting ectogenesis but also speculates that ecto-
genesis “might permit the traditionally non-gestating partner to share the
40    Chapter 3

responsibility of fetal development in a more equitable fashion” (2006,

145). Jennifer S. Bard similarly argues that with ectogenesis “there is no
longer any reason to priviledge [sic] a mother’s right to terminate a preg-
nancy over the father’s since both mothers and fathers have made bio-
logically equivalent contributions towards the creation of a new life.” She
adds: “It seems a short leap from the ability to continue a pregnancy in an
artificial womb to the requirement that every unwanted pregnancy must
be completed in an artificial womb” (2006, 150–151, 152, my emphasis).
A defender of the ectogenesis solution might also point out that if the
fetus is removed from the unwillingly pregnant woman’s body, her bodily
autonomy appears to have been respected. As Ho writes, “The bodily
autonomy move draws the right line in that what distinguishes gestating
women from their non-gestating partner is not gender but geography”
(2008, 18). Once again, according to Ho, bodily autonomy does not im-
ply procreative autonomy if the latter involves making another person a
parent against his will.
We can now add to table 3.1 the various philosophical views I have
briefly described here (see table 3.2).
Note that if we admit the possibility of ectogenesis as a resolution for
disagreement in Quadrant 3, then ectogenesis may also become relevant
to the situation in Quadrant 4, wherein there is no disagreement between
gestator and inseminator simply because a new outcome for the fetus is
then imaginable.
In the rest of this chapter, I discuss whether these philosophers are
correct in their assessment of the morality of disagreements between the
gestator and the inseminator. I also present and defend an approach to the
situations in Quadrants 2 and 3 that is different from those presented so
far. The primary questions are: What are the prospective parents’ moral
obligations, if any? And how can reproductive freedom and rights for
both women and men best be respected and promoted in cases where
their intentions or goals conflict, while minimizing harm, especially to the
woman as gestator and to the potential infant?

Evaluating Solutions to the “She Wants the Baby and He Doesn’t” Dilemma

The “procreative asymmetry” identified by Ho is generated, he thinks, be-

cause we have a justified moral commitment to both women’s and men’s
When Prospective Parents Disagree    41

Table 3.2
Philosophers’ Proposed Solutions to Disagreements between Prospective Parents

She wants the baby. She doesn’t want the baby.

He wants the Gestate and raise it. Manninen: To avoid the

baby. man’s potential suffering, the
virtuous solution is for the
woman to gestate and give
the infant to the male parent
to raise.
Ho: She can abort. But ecto-
genesis, as a possible solution,
should not be prohibited.
Bard: Ectogenesis might be
morally required.

He doesn’t want Ho: She is entitled to bodily Abort the fetus.

the baby. autonomy but not to procre- Or gestate it and surrender
ative autonomy. the infant for adoption.
Brake: Men’s causal respon- Or possibly resort to ecto-
sibility for pregnancy is not genesis.
sufficient for moral responsi-
bility for the child.
Hubin: Men should not be
victimized by women who
become pregnant via decep-
Hales: If she has the baby,
the male parent has no moral
obligation to support it.

equal moral rights and duties (2008, 2). But equality need not mean “same-
ness,” and in the context of procreation sameness is, in some respects at
least, impossible. On the contrary, because the biological roles of women
and men are so different, both in the past and at present, the burden of
justification rests upon anyone who says that the practical expression of
women’s and men’s reproductive rights and duties must nonetheless in
practice be precisely the same. The fact is that there are huge differences
in what we might call “sweat equity” between what women contribute
and what men contribute in ordinary procreation. A man, on the one
hand, merely needs to produce viable sperm and be capable of erection
and ejaculation. A woman, on the other hand, must be able to produce
42    Chapter 3

viable ova and sustain a pregnancy. Her body devotes nine months to the
creation and nourishment of the fetus, after which she labors and delivers
the baby. The amount of work and physical and psychological “invest-
ment” by the woman and the man, respectively, is staggeringly different in
quantity and quality. Therefore, there should be no prima facie assump-
tion that in practice the reproductive rights and duties of women and men
must be expressed in exactly the same way.
So what is the morally correct solution if a woman and a man disagree
about whether to continue the pregnancy or not? To make the problem
as stark as possible, let us suppose, in line with Hubin’s worries, that the
woman used deception in order to become pregnant.
The woman clearly is morally wrong to have deceived her sex partner,
and in no way would I defend her for that. I would insist both that she
is wrong in what she did and that she had no right to do it. But Hales’s
solution, absolving the inseminator of any parental responsibilities if he
does not want them, simply means that the child pays for the gestator’s
deception. The infant had no involvement in or choice about coming into
existence. It is also not in the baby’s interests for the inseminator to be
absolved of all moral and economic responsibility resulting from sexual
activity in which the inseminator chose to participate. I suggest that the
child’s interests in being well supported and cared for must trump the
inseminator’s interests in not being a parent. Hence, it is not fair to the
future child to allow his future father to have what Feit calls a “financial
abortion.” As a social practice, it makes sense to hold men materially
responsible for the children they help to create. Women’s entitlement to
abort a fetus is, contra Brake, in no way analogous to men’s supposed
entitlement not to support their offspring, even if those men used contra-
ception, because a child is not morally analogous to a fetus.
Now it might be objected that it cannot be good for the child to be on
the receiving end of obligations owed by a reluctant, dissenting, perhaps
even angry father. True. For that reason, it seems implausible that the in-
seminator would be morally required to interact with the child and play
an active role in raising it if he genuinely does not want to. Nonetheless,
it is entirely plausible to expect that the man should be held both legally
and morally responsible for at least the financial support of the child to
the degree that he is capable of it and notwithstanding the mother’s own
obligation to contribute to the child’s financial support.
When Prospective Parents Disagree    43

It is of course essential that the scope and limits of the man’s capac-
ity to pay be taken into account if a formal determination is made of his
finances. Brake makes much of the possibility that a man might be un-
fairly burdened by paying child support. She imagines an oil-field worker
or welder or other laborer expressing his feelings about being a mere
resource for the child he is supporting: “‘A good percentage of my labor
does not benefit me; it is like slavery. And I face another seventeen years
of this, with no chance to better myself’” (2005, 65–66). I am not advo-
cating that any man be placed in a situation of destitution, extreme suffer-
ing, or servitude in order to support his child. However, no child should
have to experience destitution, extreme suffering, or servitude because
of the negligence of the man who fathered her. A man who fears that the
costs of child support will prevent him from “bettering himself” should
take every possible step to avoid fathering children.
There are two legitimate exceptions to the general practice of holding
men materially and morally responsible for the children they create. First,
my argument does not imply that donor-insemination arrangements, in
which the sperm donator has no responsibility for the resulting child, are
immoral.8 Donor insemination is a legitimate exception; women who ob-
tain donor insemination acknowledge, in most cases, that the inseminator
will have no material or moral responsibility for the resulting child. The
basis for this exception is the formal prior agreement in writing, which
is entered into freely, autonomously, and informedly by both the gestator
and the inseminator, that the inseminator will be materially and morally
detached from his offspring. The significance of the “purloined sperm”
cases, however, is that there is no prior agreement whatsoever; hence, the
male is not absolved of his responsibility.
The second legitimate exception to the general practice of holding
men materially and morally responsible for the children they create arises
when the male has not been able to make an informed, free, and autono-
mous choice about the sexual activity itself. Both women and men are
entitled to bodily autonomy, and part of that entitlement is the right to
choose whether, when, how, and with whom to engage in sexual behav-
ior. An informed, free, autonomous choice to engage in sexual activity is
a necessary condition for holding a man responsible for the offspring he
engenders. There are at least two main categories of males who are not
able to give an informed, free, and autonomous choice to sexual activities.
44    Chapter 3

One such category is pubescent boys of twelve, thirteen, or fourteen, es-

pecially if they are offered sexual intercourse by a woman who is no
longer an adolescent. The other category is males of any age who suffer
from mental impairments that compromise their autonomy. We cannot
assume that males in either of these categories are capable of making
an informed, free, and autonomous choice about their sexual behavior;
hence, they cannot be held morally responsible for the outcomes of their
sexual behavior.
It might be argued that if the justification for holding the man respon-
sible in the case of deception is the interests of the child, then we should
also hold men and boys responsible even in cases where they are not com-
petent to choose sexual activity. But I am suggesting that, in addition to
the conceived children’s interests, we also have to take into consideration
the well-being and capacities of pubescent boys and of men with cognitive
impairments. Individuals who are unable to act freely and autonomously
cannot be held responsible for their actions. Moreover, even if we at-
tempted to hold them responsible, it is unlikely that pubescent boys or
males of any age with mental impairments would be capable of discharg-
ing the responsibilities that follow from procreative sexual activity.
Now it might be objected that the man in the purloined sperm case did
not consent freely, autonomously, and informedly to having oral sex be-
cause he did not know his sperm would be used to inseminate the woman.
Brake construes the idea that men who have been deceived should none-
theless pay child support as making a claim along the following lines:
“They [men] knew when they decided to have sex that they could be
ordered to pay child support, [and] they accepted this risk when they de-
cided to have sex rather than abstain.” She then points out that, as a mat-
ter of fact, it is highly unlikely that some men ever consented to support
a child and that it is inappropriate to impute tacit consent. “This makes a
mockery of the notion of consent, since surely consent, to be a meaning-
ful moral concept, must be something more than foresight” (2005, 59,
60). But holding men morally responsible for a child that results from
their consensual sexual activity is not an empirical claim that men always
do in fact consent to supporting a child when they consent to sex. Rath-
er, the claim is that when consent is knowledgeable and unconstrained,
unimpaired adult men do in fact know that a child might result from
their sexual activity, and therefore they ought to be held responsible for
When Prospective Parents Disagree    45

its consequences. The claim is in part an empirical one about what men
know (or should know) about the consequences of sexual intercourse.
But it is also a normative claim, a claim about moral responsibility for the
very serious outcome that is the creation of a child.
Now, this sort of language may be worrying because it appears remi-
niscent of the kind of language used by antiabortionists in an attempt to
prevent women from getting abortions. “If you have sex,” they say, “you
must pay the price, including the price of pregnancy. And you cannot get
out of paying that price by having an abortion.” In one respect, they are
correct: women do sometimes “pay the price” by becoming pregnant. It
is a risk that fertile women always take. It does not follow, however, that
they cannot have an abortion. A fetus is within the woman’s body, hence
legitimately within her control as to whether it stays there. An infant, on
the other hand, is a person and no longer in anyone’s body; hence, sup-
porting it is not optional for the inseminator.
So my response to Hubin and Ho is simply that men, too, must take
the kind of responsibility that women routinely have to take and must
recognize, as women always have, just how risky heterosexual activity
can be. No contraception is foolproof, and sexual activity, even nonstan-
dard sexual activity, can result in pregnancy. In the “purloined sperm”
case, the fact that a man does not anticipate a pregnancy as a result of
oral sex is not a defense. In general, we have a greater responsibility to
be careful with our gametes than with our other bodily parts and fluids.
(If it were possible for urine or blood to be used to make a new human
being, a similar caution would be incumbent upon us regarding them.)
Our gametes are potentially powerful materials, and it is every competent
person’s responsibility to be careful about what he or she does with them.
This is also why sperm and ova donation (which are protected by a mu-
tual agreement about the eventual use of the gametes) must be treated as
the morally significant activities that they are.
I am arguing, then, that provided a man genuinely chooses to take part
in sexual activity, the inseminator’s desire and intention, even his clearly
stated intention, not to be a parent is not, contrary to Hales, enough to
release him from part of his role as a biological parent. Nor, contra Brake,
is his use of a condom, if in fact he did wear one. Nor, contra Hales, is the
fact that the woman chose to continue the pregnancy by not having an
abortion and thereby willingly took on the challenges of child rearing or
46    Chapter 3

the fact (when it is a fact) that the mother enjoys child rearing and does
not find it burdensome (Hales 1996b, 47). Nor is the evidence that the
gestator will be a good mother and provider. Instead, men ought to be
aware of the empirical risks and realities that are always attendant upon
even consensual sexual behaviors—just as women must be and are.
What about cases where sperm is generated outside of shared sexual
activity? The following imaginary cases have been suggested to me. A
man needs to get a sperm sample to a laboratory and asks a female ac-
quaintance to store it in her fridge for him overnight, whereupon she uses
it to inseminate herself. Or a woman asks a man for a sperm sample for
a science experiment and then inseminates herself. Once again in these
cases I do not condone or defend deception. Although I am very skeptical
that purloined sperm cases are as frequent as philosophers’ concern about
them appears to indicate, nonetheless, stealing sperm samples—whether
obtained through mutual sexual activity or acquired, as in these hypo-
thetical examples, as lab samples from a trusting colleague—is wrong.
But if a baby results in these cases, it’s important to ensure that that baby
is cared for; the inseminator should be responsible, to the extent he is
able, for contributing to its support.
It might be objected that by taking such a strong stance I am condon-
ing the violation of men’s right not to reproduce, which I discussed and
defended in chapter 2. I disagree. Men can protect their right not to re-
produce by being prudent about their ejaculatory behavior and protective
of the use of the sperm they produce. If they were forced into ejaculating,
the situation would be a different one. But no one coerced any of the men
in the purloined sperm cases, both real and imaginary, to produce sperm,
and no one compelled them to hand it over. The men had a choice about
the disposition of their semen. The man in the oral sex case agreed to have
sex and agreed to the use of the condom. He could have kept the condom
afterward and disposed of it himself, but he chose not to. In the hypo-
thetical lab cases, the men also make autonomous and free choices, and
they are responsible for their own negligence. Gametes, because of their
baby-making potential, should be treated with great care and caution—
hence, probably not handed over for experimentation or left in someone
else’s refrigerator.9
It might be objected that holding men to this standard even in cases
of deceit is setting the moral bar too high. It means that men must be
When Prospective Parents Disagree    47

constantly on the lookout for possible misuses of their semen. It means

that men must always worry about being responsible for the outcome of
their sexual activities. I agree; that is exactly what it means. With this re-
quirement, men are placed in the same sort of situation that most women
are in whenever they engage in heterosexual activities. From puberty to
menopause, women (unless they know for sure that they are infertile)
must always worry about the chance that they might become pregnant.
They must always be concerned about the possibility that even the most
reliable form of contraception may fail. And if they do become pregnant,
they are always responsible for dealing with the pregnancy—whether by
obtaining an abortion or by gestating and giving birth to the baby. Hold-
ing men responsible does not put them in any more difficult a position
than women are in, and, for the most part, their position is less difficult,
given that men never get pregnant.
This way of resolving the dilemma in Quadrant 2 in table 3.1 pro-
tects the children of unwilling fathers. It also protects mothers. Be-
cause of women’s role in gestation (along with their subsequent role in
breastfeeding), which can entail physical and psychological risks and
can compromise women’s work roles at least early in the infant’s life,
and because of women’s relative disadvantages generally in pay and
work opportunities, it makes sense not to allow men off the hook when
it comes to supporting the children they father. But even if the gestator
were independently wealthy or very successful and earning a spectacu-
lar salary, it still makes sense to see the inseminator as morally respon-
sible at least for his share of the financial support of the infant, for, as
a general practice, it is important not to give the message to men that
they are not responsible for the consequences of their voluntary sexual
behavior. Sexual activities can have serious consequences; even in an
age of growing sexual liberation, the potential connection between het-
erosexual behavior and procreation cannot be overlooked. It is better
for children, for women, and perhaps even for men themselves10 to hold
men both legally and morally responsible at least for the financial sup-
port of the offspring they engender.
It might be objected that requiring men to support children they have
been deceived into creating rewards the women who deceive them. It might
therefore be argued that in cases where the man has been deceived, there
should be a backup mechanism whereby the state takes responsibility for
48    Chapter 3

supporting the child rather than unfairly saddling the inseminator with
the financial burden.
I agree with the general point that society collectively should provide
more support for children and for child rearing. This imperative applies
to all children and all parents. Children grow up to be the adults of the
future, who will contribute the labor, create the material goods, and grow
the food to enable society to continue. Children become adults who pro-
vide education and health care to other citizens; who create art, music,
films, and books; who develop science and engineer and construct the
built environment. Childbearing and child rearing are social goods, not
merely individual enterprises. The importance of childbearing and child
rearing to society should be recognized by providing social support for
them. There should be a social safety net that ensures, at a minimum, that
no child goes hungry or without adequate health care and that all parents
are able to raise their children with an assurance that the family will not
suffer if one or both parents is or becomes unemployed, ill, or disabled.
That social safety net should of course protect single mothers and their
children. It is wrong that women would have to (or think they have to)
deceive men in order to obtain child support.
The question is whether there should be a special mechanism just to
support the children of deceitful women in order to let the deceived father
off the hook. If the objection is focused on the inappropriate rewarding
of deceitful women by requiring inseminators to support their children,
note that state support of the child would equally be a reward—if child
support can be considered a “reward.” So the problem, if it is a problem,
of rewarding deceitful women is not obviated by state support.
In any case, however, the number of purloined sperm cases is likely to
be quite small. I have focused on them only for the sake of argument, not
because they are a serious social problem. And I argued that in instances
of disagreement between a gestator who wants to continue her pregnancy
and an inseminator who wants either a real or a “financial” abortion, the
inseminator should, to the extent he is able, be expected to support his
child. Such a requirement is not in any way incompatible with having a
broader social system that provides support for all children—and their
parents—who are in need.
Having a special backup system just for the children of deceitful wom-
en is unworkable and may have undesirable results. First, in order for
When Prospective Parents Disagree    49

such a mechanism to be available, there would have to be legal proce-

dures by which it could be determined that the pregnancy was the re-
sult of the gestator’s deception. Such procedures would be intrusive and
difficult; much of the time the situation would come down to deciding
between the gestator’s word and the inseminator’s word. Such a situation
would be similar to investigations of cases in which women report rape or
sexual assault; the kinds of interventions into their lives and sexuality that
result are unlikely to be worth duplicating in a procreative context. More-
over, if there is a widely recognized procedure for dealing with supposed
cases of deceit by gestators, I worry that such a practice would open up
the possibility for some inseminators to claim deceit even in cases where
it has not occurred. Generally speaking, it would not be good for children
or women (and maybe not for men, either) to create a practice whereby
the state offers men who engage in heterosexual activity an escape clause
from parental responsibility should they care to exploit it. A society in
which this behavior is permitted would surely be less desirable than a
society in which every person takes responsibility for behavior that can
result in procreation.
Moreover, with respect to the potential for deception, the male is not
more disadvantaged with respect to responsibility for offspring than is
the female, for it may well be that some men have deceived some women
by telling them that they have had a vasectomy or that they are otherwise
infertile in order to induce women to engage in sexual activities without
contraception. If a woman who does not want to become pregnant agrees
to sex on the assumption that she is protected from pregnancy but then
becomes pregnant, she undergoes a profoundly unwelcome bodily condi-
tion. She can of course obtain an abortion because the fetus is within the
domain of her body, and the woman is entitled to make her own choices
about her bodily domain, but abortion, as offered under current condi-
tions, can have its own costs. And if she does not have an abortion, then
she has the entire experience of pregnancy, labor, and birth to contend
with.11 Thus, male sexual deception can and does have serious and irre-
vocable consequences for women.
Both the woman and the man can, of course, decide jointly to give up
the baby for adoption.12 However, what the man cannot do, with moral
justification, is to make an individual, unilateral decision during the preg-
nancy to reject all responsibility for the infant.
50    Chapter 3

Evaluating Solutions to the “She Doesn’t Want the Baby, but He Does”

Two solutions were put forward for the Quadrant 3 dilemma: Bertha
Manninen’s “virtuous” solution, and the ectogenesis solution. I discuss
them in that order.

The “Virtuous” Solution

In her defense of taking an unwanted pregnancy to term for the sake of an
inseminator who wants to be a father Manninen writes, “As women, we
must understand that we have great power over men in this area, and thus
we should try to ensure that we exercise this power in the most virtuous
manner possible” (2007, 3).13
I don’t agree that the capacity to become and remain pregnant con-
stitutes “great power over men” (my emphasis).14 It is power of a sort:
an ability possessed by no men and by only a subset of women (those of
reproductive age who do not have overriding fertility problems). Whether
the ability to become and remain pregnant is anything more than that de-
pends on the social context. I suppose the ability to get and remain preg-
nant is a “great power” for a particular woman if the infant is wanted,
if the culture puts a genuinely high value on women’s reproductive labor
and on infants and children, and if the man who inseminated her is sup-
portive. But there are far too many contexts in which becoming pregnant
is a liability: for women who are considered “too young,” “too old,” or
“too impaired”; for women who are considered to lack the right sexual
orientation, the right socioeconomic class, the right gender identification,
or the right marital status to be pregnant; for women who are not allowed
or not able to do paid work while pregnant; for women who already have
enough (or more than enough) children; for women whose bodies are
barely adequately nourished to sustain their own lives; and for women
who do not have the money to support another child. Indeed, far from
constituting a power over men, pregnancy in fact puts many women in a
situation where they are under the power of a man—if they become ill or
vulnerable, if they lose the capacity to support themselves, if they need the
man’s income to support the child, and so on.
According to Manninen, the circumstances relevant to determining if
a woman who is unwillingly pregnant should take a pregnancy to term
When Prospective Parents Disagree    51

for the sake of an inseminator who wants to raise the baby include the
•â•‡ Whether the fetus is the product of consensual sex
•â•‡ Whether gestating the fetus would cause “many emotional or physical
burdens on the woman”
•â•‡ Whether the woman and man were or are in “an intimate relationship
already built on trust and love”
•â•‡ Whether the potential father can care for the potential infant
•â•‡ Whether the pregnant woman will suffer “any emotional or long-term
damage” if she gives the infant to the inseminator (2007, 10)15
Hence, it would be virtuous of the woman to continue an unwanted preg-
nancy in those situations where all of the following are true: the fetus is
the result of consensual sex; continuing the pregnancy will not burden the
woman; the woman and man are or at least were in a trustful and loving
relationship (Manninen 2007, 15); the potential father can care for the
infant, presumably in the absence of the infant’s mother; and the pregnant
woman will not suffer from giving the infant to the inseminator. I submit
that the simultaneous coincidence of these five conditions would be rare
indeed. And although Manninen concedes that, in general, giving away
a child can be a source of life-long pain to the gestator (2007, 18), we
must also consider the kind of pain that may be involved for the gestator
in surrendering the infant at the end of her pregnancy to a man who was
her former lover and perhaps partner. The woman would then have the
choice either of being partially involved in the child’s life (and handling
all the awkwardness and pain of a relationship like that, in particular
explaining and justifying it to the child himself or herself) or of giving up
all contact with the child forever, knowing that the child is being raised by
someone with whom the woman herself deliberately decided no longer to
be in a relationship. In either case, I suspect there would be much worry,
uncertainty, pain, awkwardness, and perhaps guilt (whether justified or
I’m willing to concede that there might be some cases where a woman’s
getting an abortion might be sad and disturbing to the man who insemi-
nated her. But as Manninen herself notes, “A woman who brings a fetus,
whom she initially wanted to abort, to term in order to give a good man
a chance to be a good father is courageous, fair, kind, empathetic, selfless,
52    Chapter 3

and very noble indeed” (2007, 15). Pregnancy is not usually a pleasant
condition if it is not wanted.16 Thus, although Manninen couches this
choice in terms of moral virtue, it will usually be supererogatory in the
sense of being considerably above and beyond the call of ordinary virtu-
ous behavior. It is never morally obligatory, as Manninen herself agrees
(2007, 16), to continue a pregnancy in order to accommodate the insemi-
nator’s desires, and the woman never loses her moral right to terminate
the pregnancy.

The Ectogenesis Solution

In evaluating the ectogenesis solution, I don’t want to imply that I think
ectogenesis is morally unproblematic. I set aside debates about the moral
value of ectogenesis. I also set aside most of the practical issues and as-
sume, simply for the sake of argument, that ectogenesis would be as safe
or almost as safe as ordinary human gestation.17
In evaluating the ectogenesis solution to the Quadrant 3 dilemma—
she doesn’t want the baby, but he does—it is essential first to note that
ectogenesis, as a potential technology, is not gender neutral. There is a
tendency in the existing philosophical literature to assume that it is: that
it requires no more (and no less) procreative labor from a woman than
from a man. Thus, Brake speaks of “effortlessly transfer[ring] the embryo
to a mechanical womb” (2005, 65). Indeed, you will recall that Bard says,
“Both mothers and fathers have made biologically equivalent contribu-
tions towards the creation of a new life” (2006, 150–151). Ho assumes
that if two people agree to ectogenesis, then it would be “plainly un-
fair if only one party has a unilateral right to terminate gestation based
on nothing but gender.” He writes, “The minute we place gestation in a
bodily neutral place (as in ectogenesis), we no longer believe that either
procreative party has the right to determine unilaterally to terminate or
to continue gestation” (2008, 15, 16).
If ectogenesis, that supposed “bodily neutral place,” were available,
then it would involve one of two of the following processes. First, an
ovum would be removed from a woman’s body and fertilized; then the
embryo would be gestated in an artificial uterus. In the alternative pro-
cess, a fetus already gestating inside a woman’s body would be removed
from it and placed in an artificial uterus. Given these two possibilities, ec-
togenesis would be entirely gender neutral, requiring no more and no less
When Prospective Parents Disagree    53

procreative labor from the woman than from the man, only if the two fol-
lowing counterfactuals were true: (1) the process of removing ova from a
woman’s body were no more painful, difficult, intrusive, or invasive than
the process for men of ejecting sperm; and (2) there were no pain, stress,
or invasiveness associated with the removal of the fetus before maturity,
intact and unharmed, from the woman’s uterus.
It is hard to see how either of these counterfactuals can be made true.
Unless ova can one day be manufactured (in which case I am not sure
whether we are any longer talking about producing human beings), it
will always be necessary to remove them from the woman’s body.18 This
process can presumably be made somewhat easier, less painful, and less
invasive, while needing the use of fewer drugs, than it is now, but the
process will presumably never be analogous to the ejaculation of sperm.
Moreover, a fetus that is unwanted after several weeks or months of ges-
tation would have to be removed from its gestator’s uterus, and doing so
would likely involve pain, stress, and invasive procedures for the gestator.
The physical burdens of so doing may presumably be reduced, but it is
unlikely that they can be eliminated. Thus, ectogenesis, if it were to be
feasible, would still involve more “sweat equity” and potential pain from
the female parent than from the male parent. Ectogenesis thus would not
and cannot be, contrary to its supporters’ assumptions, a gender-neutral
reproductive process,19 and it would not obliterate all biological repro-
ductive asymmetries. As a result, the psychological and physical costs to
the gestator would mean that having the fetus removed from her body
and put in an artificial uterus in circumstances where the inseminator
wants the baby would not just be “virtuous” (to use Manninen’s term) on
the woman’s part; it would be positively heroic, and it would therefore be
in no way morally obligatory.
What if removing the fetus in an abortion procedure and removing
the fetus for deposit in an artificial uterus were exactly the same in terms
of the demands and effects on the gestator? Even then, because she is en-
titled to bodily autonomy, the gestator has no moral obligation to submit
to having the fetus removed for purposes of ectogenesis. It would be her
choice which operation is performed on her body. As long as it is within
her body, it is subject to her bodily autonomy.20
Another important reason for not choosing ectogenesis to resolve the
disagreement in Quadrant 3 is that ectogenesis for fetuses unwanted by
54    Chapter 3

Table 3.3
Morally Justified Solutions to Disagreements between Prospective Parents

She wants the baby. She doesn’t want the baby.

He wants the Gestate and raise it. She is morally entitled to

baby. abort.
Neither continuation of the
pregnancy nor ectogenesis is
morally required.

He doesn’t want She is not morally required to Abort the fetus.

the baby. end the pregnancy. Or gestate it and surrender
The child’s interest in receiv- the infant for adoption.
ing financial support must Ectogenesis is not morally
override the fact that the required.
male parent did not want a
child. This outcome is better
for children and mothers.

their gestators is a poor use of resources. I have deliberately side-stepped

the general question whether ectogenesis is desirable, worth developing,
or deserving of resources and funding.21 Here I simply want to suggest
that it is questionable whether a fetus that has, in a way, already received
one negative vote (from its gestator) should be gestated in an artificial
uterus.22 If ectogenesis is to be used—and this “if” is huge—it might be
preferable to save the process for fetuses that are wanted by both their
gestators and their inseminators.
Thus, given its burdens on women, ectogenesis cannot be a morally
obligatory solution to the Quadrant 3 dilemma. These arguments would
also defeat any moral requirement to use ectogenesis in Quadrant 4,
where neither biological parent wants the pregnancy.
Table 3.3 lists the main evaluative claims for which I have argued re-
garding the Quadrant 2 and Quadrant 4 dilemmas.


I have endeavored to provide morally justified resolutions for situations

in which a male and a pregnant female disagree about whether they want
to be parents, resolutions that are different from those recommended by
Bard, Brake, Hales, Ho, Hubin, and Manninen. In the case where the
When Prospective Parents Disagree    55

woman wants the child and the man does not, I argue that the woman is
entitled to continue the pregnancy and the man is obligated to provide at
least financial support, to the extent that he can, for the resulting child.
The child’s interests in being well cared for and the mother’s potential
vulnerability trump the man’s interests. In the case where the woman does
not want the child and the man does, I argue that she never has an ob-
ligation to continue the pregnancy, and only very rarely would it be a
virtuous choice for her to continue gestation; the choice is mostly super-
erogatory in the sense of being above and beyond the call of moral virtue.
Moreover, the woman has no moral obligation whatsoever to make use of
ectogenesis to preserve and develop the fetus, whether or not the insemi-
nator wants the child.
It might be protested that I described myself as being concerned with
women’s and men’s reproductive freedom, yet the solutions I offer honor
women’s reproductive freedom without honoring men’s. My response
draws upon Ho’s concepts of bodily autonomy and procreative asym-
metry. Like women, men are entitled to autonomy over their own bodies.
Hence, men are always entitled to a choice as to whether to engage in
sexual activities with a woman. But men are not capable of pregnancy,
and that fact undermines any claim about “gender neutrality” or “moral
symmetry” in human reproduction.
Deontological Reasons for Having Children

Whenever human beings decide to reproduce, the decision has at least

two foundational and morally relevant features. First, children themselves
do not choose to come into existence; by the very nature of procreation,
their consent is not possible. Hence, in cases where pregnancy is the result
of choice, the decision that a new human being will come into existence
is inevitably made for them by others. Second, no child can be brought
into existence for its own sake. What I mean is that there is no previously
existing entity that is given material human existence via reproduction.
Some people believe that having a child may be, in part, an expression
of gratitude that one exists oneself. They say they give the “gift of life”
because others gave it to them. However, J. David Velleman argues that
life is not a gift at all because the gift has “no intended recipient. It is a
‘gift’ that is launched into the void, where some as-yet nonexistent person
may snag it. Such untargeted benefits do not fit our usual concept of gift-
giving” (2005, 372 fn. 7).
That’s not quite right, though, for “untargeted” benefits can sometimes
also be gifts. Consider monetary donations to charities. These gifts have
no specific intended recipients; they are “launched into the void” in the
sense that one does not know and is likely never to know who are the
specific people who are helped. I think what makes procreation an odd
“gift” is not that it is “untargeted” but the fact that the recipient does not
yet exist. In this one case, the gift creates the recipient, and there is no
particular being on whom the “gift” of existence is bestowed. As David
Benatar puts it, because procreation is not a matter of bringing “the ben-
efit of life to some pitiful non-being suspended in the metaphysical void
and thereby denied the joys of life,” children are never brought into being
for their own sake (2006, 129–130).
58    Chapter 4

Given, then, that children never consent to coming into existence and
cannot be brought into existence for their own sake, this chapter begins
the inquiry into whether there nonetheless are good reasons for procre-
ation. Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky goes so far as to argue that “un-
der certain conditions many people are under some moral requirement to
attempt to bring children into being (in order to raise them)” (1995, 41,
my emphasis). Despite the fact that women’s and men’s roles in reproduc-
tion are significantly different, he does not distinguish between what he
takes women’s and men’s procreative obligations to be. He simply states
a series of arguments in favor of an obligation to procreate, arguments
that include the value of children, the value of loving relationships with
children, the need for new persons who will “support the economy and
provide all care and services in society,” the need to supply “future voters
and concerned individuals,” and the importance of fulfilling others’ pro-
natalist expectations, preserving a cultural form of life, and perpetuating
a genetic and cultural familial pool (1995, 46, 47).
If the taxonomy of rights in chapter 2 is correct, and women and men
have a moral right not to have children, then there is a prima facie very
strong reason for believing that they are seldom or never under an ob-
ligation to have children. This claim, I show, can further be defended
through a critical examination revealing the inadequacy of each of the
reasons that might be put forward to support such a putative obligation,
including those presented by Smilansky. Smilansky’s reasons are a mix of
deontological and consequentialist approaches. In this chapter on deon-
tological arguments for procreation and in chapter 5 on consequentialist
arguments, I engage in an examination of his reasons and others. The
various reasons traditionally offered for having children turn out to be
surprisingly inadequate.
As I stated in chapter 1, deontologists believe that certain acts or the
practices and rules to which these acts are related—for example, keep-
ing a promise—are right in themselves and that other acts—for example,
murder—are wrong in themselves, independent of the consequences of
the acts. Outcomes are not what make our choices morally justified; it
is their conformity to certain moral rules. A deontologist regards it as
important to make the “why have children?” decision on the basis of do-
ing what is inherently right and avoiding doing what is inherently wrong.
The main deontological arguments in support of procreation pertain to
Deontological Reasons for Having Children    59

heeding the supposed intrinsic value of childbearing; passing on a name,

genetic link, or property; fulfilling a duty to others; keeping a promise;
and discharging religious duties or duties to the state. I discuss each of
these arguments in turn.

Bearing Children as Intrinsically Worthwhile

Unlike most male philosophers who write on the subject, Rosalind Hurst-
house is aware of the special responsibilities and risks that procreation in-
evitably places on women but not on men. She says that men and women
(and especially women who have borne a child) are not “morally equal”
because women are better: “In bearing children, Mrs. Average does some-
thing morally significant and worthwhile which Mr. Average does not
match, whereby they are not morally on a par.” Hursthouse compares
pregnancy and labor to going “into battle” and says that they require
“courage, fortitude and endurance.” She questions why women are not
“praised and admired” for all of this. After all, she says, “a man who goes
through something like what women go through in childbearing (such
as a painful illness or operation) with the same unthinking courage, for-
titude and endurance is counted as particularly admirable” (1987, 299,
300, 304).
Thus, Hursthouse emphasizes the burdensome aspects of pregnancy
and delivery, and sees childbearing as (usually) a heroic endeavor. She
romanticizes women for their sheer capacity to gestate and give birth to
children. She writes, for example, that “women are, in one respect, born
superior to men—superior in the straightforward sense that they are born
with a capacity to do something worthwhile, viz. bear children (and no
corresponding incapacity, such as being unable to think logically) which
men lack.” She even goes so far as to suggest, at least tentatively, that any-
one who has not “borne children well” might have to say, “I haven’t done
anything with my life really” (1987, 298, 318).
It’s a rather pleasant change to read the work of a philosopher who so
powerfully values childbearing. Nonetheless, in her enthusiasm for wom-
en’s procreative capacities Hursthouse goes too far. It is implausible and
even sexist to suppose that merely possessing a biological capacity makes
women superior to men. Some women never exercise that capacity; being
the possessor of a uterus does not make them better human beings. Yet
60    Chapter 4

using one’s capacity to gestate and give birth is also not automatically
value conferring. If it were, then the more children one had, the better
and more moral a person one would be. Mere numbers of offspring do
not make multiparous women morally superior to those who are childless
or who have only one; the mother of five is not more advanced than the
mother of two. The fact is that some women, depending on their medical
condition and the available medical resources, are heroic in pregnancy
and delivery, and some are not. Most simply get through it, and most are
fairly gracious about it. Although pregnancy and delivery are significant,
even more important is how one raises the child, for that endeavor re-
quires at least an eighteen-year moral commitment.
To claim that persons who have not “borne children well” have not
done anything with their lives is preposterous, given all the other valu-
able, even heroic activities that many human beings engage in. The idea
is especially dangerous for women. It might be used to get women to give
up other activities on the grounds that all that matters is having a baby.
To suppose that every single childless person has “not done anything”
with her or his life is to devalue our human history of creativity and
Hursthouse describes childbearing as “intrinsically worthwhile.” The
basis for this notion is not, she says, that human beings in general are
intrinsically valuable. Rather, the idea that childbearing is intrinsically
worthwhile expresses important ideals with respect to “the value of love,
of family life, of our proper emotional development through a natural
life-cycle and what counts as enrichments of this emotional develop-
ment.” Hence, it is more accurate to think of having one’s own child as
intrinsically worthwhile to oneself (1987, 311, 312).
But if the supposed intrinsic value of childbearing is actually a func-
tion of certain other values, then it is not in fact worthwhile for its own
sake, but for the sake of other values. We therefore need to assess those
values and see whether they are indeed connected to procreation in the
way that Hursthouse believes. We can and should ask not only whether
childbearing is connected to love, family life, and emotional development,
as Hursthouse believes, but also whether all or any of these elements is
sufficient to justify childbearing. I explore some of these alleged connec-
tions in this chapter, some in chapter 5 in looking at consequentialist
reasons to choose to have children, some in chapter 9 in the discussion of
Deontological Reasons for Having Children    61

resisting extinction, and some in the final chapter in the examination of

procreation, values, and identity. The notion that childbearing is intrinsi-
cally valuable is unfounded.

Name, Property, Genetic Link

One traditional basis for childbearing is lineage: to carry on the fam-

ily name and family line. Some people also want to keep property “in
the family,” whether the property is land, housing, artworks, mementos,
or money. Some people believe that there is a duty to perpetuate one’s
name, one’s genetic line, and one’s family property. People often express
concern that a family name may “die out” or that a family line will end
if a particular individual or couple does not have children. Such persons,
and there are quite a few of them, assume that the sheer perpetuation of a
particular bloodline is of intrinsic value. For such people, having children
is also a way of achieving a kind of vicarious immortality: “Humans are
probably unique among species in their cognitive awareness of mortality,
and particularly their conspicuous anxiety in anticipation of it. Humans
are presumably also uniquely aware that ‘leaving something of oneself’
for the future (despite mortality) can be accomplished by leaving genetic
descendants” (Aarssen 2007, 1769).
The idea of a genetic duty to have children is sometimes expressed in a
form that is directed at particular individuals. For example, women in the
sciences or the professions occasionally receive the message, “Women like
you should be having children.” The idea is that they ought not to devote
their entire lives to their careers. Because their offspring are believed likely
to be particularly talented and intelligent, they are thought to have an
obligation to perpetuate their genes.
I’m skeptical about using the genetic link as a reason for having a
child, let alone about claiming that it may constitute the basis for an
obligation. Is anyone’s biological composition so valuable that it must
be perpetuated? Let’s assume that you are a great human being (that is,
you are enormously intelligent, skilled, or talented or have strong sports
abilities or leadership capacities). You need not have children of your
own: much of your genetic material will be perpetuated as long as your
siblings have children. Some of it will even be passed down if your cous-
ins procreate.
62    Chapter 4

The not-so-subtle assumption underlying the focus on the genetic link

is that it is better for educated women (who of course are also likely to
be white and relatively well off) to increase their fertility rates rather than
for women whose offspring supposedly are less valuable to society and to
humanity—women who are likely to be poorer, less educated, impaired,
or not white. Canada and the United States have a sorry history of engag-
ing in the compulsory sterilization of members of certain groups, includ-
ing some native people, poor people, people of color, and people with
impairments, having judged that such persons were unfit to perpetuate
their own genes.1 The wrongness of those negative eugenicist policies is
now recognized and in need of no further arguments, but so also should
be the wrongness of positive eugenicist policies that favor reproduction
by some persons more than others. Such expectations and policies are
ableist, classist, and racist.
But the assumption itself that one’s genetic inheritance is inherently
good and worth preserving no matter one’s identity is itself questionable.
For one thing, it’s conceited. I’m reminded of the infamous sperm bank
founded in the 1980s to which Nobel Prize winners were supposed to do-
nate their sperm (Plotz 2001). Of the many things wrong with that idea,
one main problem is the assumption that Nobel Prize winners’ sperm is
so much more valuable than other men’s sperm. After all, given the size of
the human population, there are millions of people with great intelligence
and talents. In that respect, no one is unique. Moreover, there is no guar-
antee that offspring will inherit their parents’ abilities or that, even having
inherited them, they will decide to act upon them. We all know of famous
writers, scientists, and athletes whose children lack either their parents’
talents or the motivation and perseverance to follow through on them.
And although nature undeniably plays a role in how people turn out, so
does nurture. So it is possible to pass on some of one’s gifts and abilities
not only by having one’s own biologically related children, but also by
adopting and raising children, by mentoring nieces and nephews or the
children of friends, and by teaching and coaching within an educational
The implication of all these arguments is that the perpetuation of a
genetic link is not a very good basis at all for having children. Moreover,
emphasizing genetic connectedness may have undesirable consequences.
I raised concerns about this problem more than twenty years ago, when
Deontological Reasons for Having Children    63

reproductive technologies were still genuinely new2 (Overall 1987). Peo-

ple seek out these technologies in many cases because they’re determined
to have a genetic connection to their offspring—so determined that they
spend thousands of dollars, commit hundreds of hours, and take medical
risks to have a genetically related child. They see their child as a product
who must and will reflect well on them. The undesirable consequence of
such an outlook is that parents can have unrealistic expectations of their
children. If I have a child because I’m a marvelous clarinet player, and I
want a son who will also be a marvelous clarinet player, then I’m setting
myself up for disappointment, and I may put a great deal of pressure on
my son that he will neither appreciate nor benefit from—especially if it
turns out he’d rather be a potter or a plumber. Children have enough
pressures on them as it is; they don’t need parents who expect them to be
little replicas.3
Moreover, the practice of having children in order to “pass on” a name
is sexist because in most cultures only males can carry on the family
name; females give it up at marriage and take on their husbands’ names.
“Carrying on the family name” is, then, an illusion founded on the im-
plicit assumption that the mother’s name and lineage contribute nothing
to the offspring.4 Even if the child is given a double surname reflecting
both parents, in practical terms it cannot be maintained through future
generations: when a double-surnamed person procreates with another
double-surnamed person, a name or names are bound to be dropped, if
only for convenience and simplicity. A surname certainly has cultural and
personal value—it is part of our identity from birth—but perpetuating
one’s own particular branch of the family with that name is hardly an
adequate justification for bringing a child into the world. Indeed, it makes
the child into a mere vehicle for the name.
It is unsurprising that many people want to pass on their property and
money to their children, but to have children only for this purpose puts
the cart before the horse. Handing down an inheritance benefits the chil-
dren, but to have children in order to hand down an inheritance means
that one is having children in order to benefit the inheritance. Such ar-
rangements treat women as mere instruments for reproducing the fam-
ily. They also treat the child as a means to an end (whose importance is
overestimated) and not as valuable in himself. Surely such treatment is
morally unjustified. If I’m wealthy and I have a baby in order to keep my
64    Chapter 4

wealth in the family, then I am using that child as a mere instrument for
maintaining the family fortune. Instead of acquiring money and posses-
sions in order to support one’s offspring, one acquires offspring in order
to support one’s money and possessions. Having a child only for that pur-
pose seems selfish and almost fetishistic: Why must the money be kept in
that way? A person who has considerable wealth can usually do far more
good by donating much of it to museums, libraries, schools, or charities
that benefit people in need.
Whether it is a matter of perpetuating a genetic link, carrying on a
name, or passing on wealth and property, none of these deontological ar-
guments can legitimately be regarded as the basis of an obligation to have
children or even as an adequate justification for choosing to procreate.

Duties to Others (and the Problems of Pronatalist Pressures)

Can an obligation to have a child or at least a good reason to have a child

be founded upon a duty to other people? Perhaps having a child should
be seen as a way to honor one’s family and one’s upbringing.
Some people long to become grandparents. Such people may put pres-
sure on their adult children to “start a family.” Pronatalist pressures are
still ubiquitous, and the resulting tendency to define womanliness in
terms of procreation and manliness in terms of begetting has not disap-
peared. In some communities at some times, one cannot even be a “real”
woman unless one is a mother. Having children thereby becomes a means
to conformity, a way of giving the community the gendered behavior it
expects. Married persons who are childless, whether by choice or by vir-
tue of infertility, are then subjected to many invasions of their privacy and
bombarded by suggestions that they should “get busy and have a baby.”
The creation of such pressures is morally unjustified. Although would-
be grandparents are often thrilled when their adult child has a baby, they
should not impose their grandparental goals on their children. To have
a child out of a sense of duty to family is to use the child as a kind of
currency in the family exchange, a repayment of a debt. Except where
pronatalism is overwhelming, leaving no alternative (as surely happens
for women in some subcultures), for the most part one is not justified in
having children just to please one’s parents or to accede to pronatalist
pressures from other sources.
Deontological Reasons for Having Children    65

Even in the absence of pronatalist pressures, having a child to honor

one’s parents is of doubtful value. To do so is once again to use the chil-
dren as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. It may lead to
disappointment (since grandchildren don’t always turn out the way one
might hope). And it doesn’t seem to be adequate motivation to sustain the
great amount of commitment, work, and devotion that go into child rear-
ing—even if the grandparents will be around to help (and many of them
will die before the children are grown). Choosing to have a child only to
fulfill a duty to others is also unlikely to be good for the child himself. If
the parents otherwise wanted to remain childless, they may even end up
resenting their offspring rather than appreciating him for himself. Finally,
if honoring one’s parents is an important goal, there are other ways to
do it: by encouraging one’s parents in their own life endeavors; by sup-
porting one’s parents to perpetuate their own values and achievements;
by caring for one’s parents when they need it; and by making a good life
for oneself.

Keeping a Promise

But might one have an obligation to have children that is based on one’s
commitment to one’s partner? People have at least a prima facie respon-
sibility to honor their promises. In the context of procreation decisions, Y
may have married X on the condition or at least with the implicit under-
standing that X agreed to have children. In that case, there is a promise—
a kind of moral contract—between the two individuals.
Is a woman who fails to live up to that promise morally wrong? It
is not the sort of promise that should be made lightly; procreation is of
great significance to some people, and the outcomes of that promise will
affect the lives of several people, including the child, if there is one. But
if the woman made the promise under coercion or at a time when she
was not autonomous or lacked crucial knowledge, then she is not wrong
to break the promise. And even if her promise was autonomous, free,
and informed, she remains entitled to govern her own body. Breaking her
promise may cause disappointment and even grief to the person to whom
she made the promise, and in that respect her promise breaking is regret-
table. Indeed, the relationship may not survive the sundering of the com-
mitment to procreate, and the disappointed partner may understandably
66    Chapter 4

want to leave her. Yet if she truly does not want to be a mother, she does
not have an obligation to donate the services of her body for the sake of
another person’s project to be a parent, even when she previously entered
into an agreement to do so.
The keeping of a promise is not enough to justify being a parent. A
promise is at best a defeasible basis for having a baby. If an individual
becomes a mother only out a sense of contract with her partner and in
the absence of any other reasons, she might resent not only the partner,
but the child. If the promise is the only reason for having a child, then one
wonders how the child would be treated and whether the parent would
care about the child. The child would yet again in this case be treated as
a means only—a means of keeping a promise.
Not every promise should be kept. In the absence of any other motiva-
tion for being a parent, a promise of this sort, which materially affects the
well-being of a young and vulnerable human being, may be one of them.
Better still, no one should promise to have a child unless (a) one has no
doubts about one’s willingness and capacity to have a child; (b) one will
love and care for the child for its own sake, not merely out of a sense of
being beholden to a promise; and (c) one is not using the promise for
emotional or material gain.

Religious Duties

Some might argue that we have a moral duty to reproduce because that
is precisely what God commanded human beings, his creatures, to do.
According to the book of Genesis, God blessed Adam and Eve, the sup-
posed first human beings, and said to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and
replenish the Earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the
sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth
upon the Earth” (Genesis 1:27–28). The value of children is reinforced in
an often-cited passage found in the book of Psalms: “Lo, children are an
heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows
are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is
the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but
they shall speak with the enemies in the gate” (Psalms 127, 3–5). Thus,
children are a blessing, a sign of God’s favor, and procreation is a mani-
festation of religious obedience.
Deontological Reasons for Having Children    67

The question of divine justification for moral choices is long-standing

and complex, and I do not intend—and do not have space—to analyze all
the questions associated with basing moral decisions on religious belief.
There are, however, two main objections to this argument for procreation
that I think are insuperable.
There is first an epistemological argument: it is not possible to know
that God wants human beings to procreate, or at least it is not possible to
know to what extent God wants us to procreate and whether God would
sanction any limits on procreation. Is God happy with a family of two
children? Or does God want us to have nineteen children, as Michelle
Duggar and Jim-Bob Duggar of the reality television show Nineteen Kids
and Counting have done? Does God disapprove of the use of contra-
ception? Or is God perhaps pleased when human beings make careful
choices about controlling their fertility?
We can’t know. No one has direct access to the mind of God. There are
also many questions about the alleged authority of the Bible and other
religious scriptures. Fundamentalists who cite scriptures as the source of
their insights about God’s wishes never provide any independent reasons
for thinking one scripture is more reliable than another or for interpret-
ing scriptures in a particular way, reconciling the inconsistencies within
particular scriptures, or applying texts that are thousands of years old to
the moral questions of the twenty-first century. Of course, many people
would add that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, even to know whether
God exists, let alone what God wants. For that reason, the discussion in
this book is agnostic with respect to the existence of God and God’s al-
leged preferences and actions with respect to human procreation.
But set aside the epistemological doubts. Let us suppose that somehow
we do know both that God exists and that God commands human be-
ings to be fruitful and multiply—whatever that might mean for practical
procreative decision making in this century. But then a type of dilemma
originally set forth in Plato’s Euthyphro (1941) dialog arises. Does God
command us to be fruitful and multiply because it is morally right to do
so? Or is being fruitful and multiplying right because God commands
it? If the first disjunct is correct—that is, God commands us to be fruit-
ful and multiply because doing so is morally right—then there is some
other moral standard or purpose that is independent of God’s command
and forms the basis for God’s supposed command to procreate. That is,
68    Chapter 4

God’s say-so is not the final word on our moral duty to procreate; there
is some value that we are supposed to be attaining or living up to when
we reproduce. We should therefore look for that other moral standard or
purpose, whatever it might be, evaluate it, and see whether and to what
extent it still applies to twenty-first-century life and how we make our
reproductive choices.
If the second disjunct is correct—that is, being fruitful and multiply-
ing are right just because God commands that we do so—then God has
no reason for God’s commands, and the supposed duty to procreate is
founded only upon God’s fiat. But if God uses no moral touchstone for
determining what to command human beings to do, then God might just
as well command murder and torture, and God’s commands are morally
arbitrary. God might command us to be fruitful one month and the next
month command every pregnant woman to have an abortion. God might
require all men to get vasectomies one week and forbid all contraception
the next week. Without any other moral standard, there is no assurance
about the direction that God’s commands might take. If that is the case,
then human beings can have no more reason to obey God and in this
instance to go on having children than they would have to obey a capri-
cious human dictator. One might, of course, obey out of fear of God and
dread of the consequences for disobedience, but one would not have any
moral reason to obey, only a pragmatic one. Obedience to a divine dicta-
tor, under threat of reprisals, is a sadly inadequate justification for choos-
ing to be a parent.
The Euthyphro dilemma shows us, then, that either we need to look
for a further foundation to justify procreation, one that is beyond di-
vine command—the foundation that God himself supposedly uses—or
we need not automatically obey God’s injunctions to procreate because
God is no more than an arbitrary dictator. Because of this dilemma, I take
religious duties as an inadequate justification for procreation. People’s
procreative decisions should not be based on claims about what God al-
legedly wants.

Duties to the State

Can there be a duty to the state or the nation to have children? What
I’m interested in here is the idea that producing children for the benefit
Deontological Reasons for Having Children    69

of society might be considered a material manifestation of one’s moral

indebtedness as a citizen to the society that provided one’s own educa-
tion, one’s opportunity to make a living, and one’s civil, political, and
legal rights. From this point of view, having children is a patriotic duty, an
expression of loyalty to one’s nation.
This idea is different from the consequentialist argument that procre-
ation is justified because children will grow up to be contributing adults
who will benefit society. Children are said to be a public good; they are
the engines of progress, the workers of tomorrow, the producers of goods
and services, the sources of tax dollars, and the potential supporters of
an aging population. This description is of course accurate in most cases,
although what follows from it is not immediately self-evident. But I am
not considering here the forward-looking argument that people should
procreate for the sake of the economic value that children will one day
bring to their society when they are adults. (In chapter 5, I discuss conse-
quentialist arguments about producing children for the sake of the ben-
efits they bring. And in chapter 9, I examine the claim that procreation
is justified in order to avoid underpopulation.) Instead, I am considering
a backward-looking argument that says, “Because your society provided
an environment in which you could get an education, find employment,
and participate as a citizen, you owe it to the society to contribute to the
creation of new citizens.”
Questions about the duties of citizenship are complex and multifac-
eted, and I cannot deal with them in any detail here. Nonetheless, it is
appropriate to question whether one has a specifically procreative duty
to the state. Suppose the society in which a citizen lives has not treated
her well; she was consigned to grow up in poverty, subjected to racism or
sexism, deprived of an equal education, and excluded from opportunities
for good employment and participation in civil society. In such a case,
there seems to be little or nothing that the citizen owes to the society in
which she finds herself. In fact, such a person might even reason that the
refusal to provide more beings to oppress is both a fitting response to
living within an oppressive society and a way of protecting children who
would otherwise exist from being the targets of continuing oppression.
And even if one is treated fairly and has opportunities equal to those of
other citizens, it might be argued that one is not inevitably indebted to
one’s society. After all, no one chooses where they are born and grow up
70    Chapter 4

or the particulars of the society in which they live. Perhaps one cannot
incur a debt if one did not choose any of the events that led to that debt.
And even if one feels a sense of obligation to one’s society, there are many
other ways of repaying the debt, if that is what it is: by working produc-
tively, paying taxes, being law abiding, voting and participating in other
political activities, supporting community organizations, doing volunteer
work, and so on.5
But the strongest reason women do not have an obligation to have
children for the state is that such an obligation would make women into
procreative serfs. It would mean that women are instruments for further-
ing the state good, a cause that most women never explicitly agree to.
Moreover, a sense of duty to the state is not a strong foundation for hav-
ing children because one’s moral focus is then not on the children them-
selves, but on the society. A person who feels no great interest in or liking
for caring for children but procreates out of a sense of civic duty would
likely be an inadequate parent at best.6 Such an approach might also be
dangerous for the offspring, for it would mean treating children primarily
as potential instruments of the state, whose labor can be used for military,
industrial, economic, or intelligence purposes.

A General Comment on Deontological Arguments

I have shown that the standard deontological arguments advanced to sup-

port procreation—heeding the supposed intrinsic value of childbearing;
passing on a name, genetic link, or property; fulfilling a duty to others;
keeping a promise; and discharging duties to religion or to the state—are
not morally compelling. They do not defeat the right not to reproduce;
hence, they do not generate an obligation to have a child. Moreover, to
the extent that these arguments purport to create a moral requirement
that women serve as breeders or that children function primarily to fulfill
the needs of dynasties or political regimes, then none of them is a good
reason for procreation. The systemic moral problem with deontological
arguments in support of choosing to procreate is that such arguments
both require and validate the use of women or children and often both
as mere means to the implementation of some duty or the perpetuation
of some supposed intrinsic value. Using people as mere means to the ac-
complishment of a goal—a goal that is not inherently related to their own
well-being—is a fundamental violation of their personhood.
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children

If the criterion for the moral evaluation of our behavior is the conse-
quences it produces, then we should act in a way that will produce good
and avoid causing harm. It then appears that one is justified in having a
child when the positive consequences of bringing the child into existence
outweigh the negative consequences of doing so. This view, in its most
minimal form, is the consequentialist justification for procreation. In this
chapter, I examine various consequentialist arguments for procreation
and show that they do not provide an adequate foundation for procre-
ative choices. Indeed, in some cases, such arguments result in egregious
Philosophers have often remarked that there is a philosophically inter-
esting asymmetry in our assumptions about procreation. This asymmetry
is that “while there is a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into exis-
tence, there is no duty to bring happy people into being” (Benatar 2006,
32).1 In general, we think making people happy is rather a good thing.
Why then should we not recognize an obligation to make happy people?
In fact, why not go further? As a version of consequentialism, the the-
ory of utilitarianism says that one should not only produce good but
produce as much good as possible, maximizing the balance of good over
bad. Utilitarianism then appears to imply that we have an ethical obliga-
tion to bring children, perhaps many children, into the world, provided
that doing so will increase net well-being. Torbjörn Tännsjö, for example,
argues, “The mere addition to the world of a person leading a life worth
living makes the world better” (2004, 232).
Suppose you are a woman with two children, each of whom has a good
life. Then you have created double the amount of good that you would
have created by having only one child. And if you have three children,
72    Chapter 5

then you have tripled the amount of good you would create by having
only one child. The implication then appears to be that you have very
good reasons for having a large number of children (Hutchinson 1982).
Perhaps, like reality star Kate Gosselin, you should even use medical assis-
tance to increase the likelihood that you will give birth to many children
simultaneously. Of course, at some point the law of diminishing returns
kicks in. Once you reach the fifteenth child—or for some of us it might
be the tenth or the seventh—you would no longer be so capable of giving
that child a very good life. You might be overworked and stressed; your
resources would not go far; you might have trouble feeding, clothing,
sheltering, and educating them all.
You might think, then, that you do not have reasons to have more than
the number you can comfortably handle; you certainly have no obligation
to do so. But that is not true, if utilitarianism is correct. For any child you
have—even number eleven or twelve or higher—will probably still have a
reasonably good life, and that life will constitute a net gain for the world’s
fund of happiness. The child may not be as happy as she would have been
if you had only five children, but she will still experience a lifetime of at
least some well-being. If the child never exists, though, then the well-being
the child would have had will not exist at all.
Of course, the older a woman gets, the greater her risk becomes of hav-
ing a child with impairments—for example, Down syndrome. Although
some people believe that a life without disease or disability is better than
life with either one, nonetheless, as disability activists remind us, we who
are temporarily nonimpaired should never assume that impaired people’s
lives are not worth living. And in fact, on average, many people with
Down syndrome seem to be remarkably content and happy. So the possi-
bility of creating children with impairments may not be enough to release
you from the utilitarian obligation of creating more children. (I say more
about impairments in chapter 8.)
Perhaps after the twentieth child, you might be running the risk, if you
are the woman having the children, of doing severe harm to yourself.
According to utilitarianism, you are not entitled to value your well-being
to the exclusion of that of others, but you are entitled to include it in the
calculation. Nevertheless, you might be forgiven for wondering if there
are reasons to stop having children long before the point that you make
yourself very ill or even drop dead from bearing large numbers of them.
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    73

Taken to its extreme limit, the consequentialist justification for pro-

creation famously results, on a global scale, in what philosopher Derek
Parfit calls the “Repugnant Conclusion,” which he defines as follows:
“Compared with the existence of very many people—say, ten billion—all
of whom have a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger
number of people whose existence, if other things are equal, would be
better, even though these people would have lives that are barely worth
living” (2004, 10). In other words, if the goal is simply to produce as
much good as possible, then we would have to produce as many people as
possible, even if their individual lives are not very good, because the total
amount of good would thereby be maximized.
This uncomfortable but nonetheless bizarrely plausible idea has
spawned an entire generation of debate.2 The debate is concerned with
overpopulation, quality of life, and the current generation’s obligations to
future generations, yet it is mostly unrelated to individual moral decision
making by women and men and oblivious to the reproductive labor by
women that is necessary to produce future generations.
For fans of the “Repugnant Conclusion” debate, the main question is
whether it is better for there to be more people who are less well off or
fewer people who are better off. Tännsjö thinks we should simply accept
the Repugnant Conclusion and comments, “Such a want of generosity,
if we do not welcome such a creature [a newborn infant]!” (2004, 233).
But generosity does not require us to create the baby in the first place.
Although some children end up having very good lives, we do not have an
obligation to nonexistent beings to bring them into existence. If a nonex-
istent individual is never conceived, no one has been wronged.
Moreover, Tännsjö never thinks about who the “we” are who would
have to do the welcoming by conceiving, gestating, delivering, and breast-
feeding these new creatures. The question is not only “How many children
must be produced to reach maximum utility?” but also “Who will gestate
and raise those children, how, if at all, will the gestators benefit from
their own reproductive labor, and what sacrifices will they be expected to
make?” Women all over the planet choose to have fewer children as their
education and resources increase. This preference is a clear indication that
women are unlikely to agree to maximize the population and will have
to be treated coercively and denied education to compel them to do so.
The Repugnant Conclusion is repugnant in part because it does not direct
74    Chapter 5

adequate moral attention to the women who would have to do the re-
productive labor to generate the millions of new human beings. It is mis-
taken because the premises that lead to it are insidiously gender neutral.
That gender neutrality at best ignores and at worst mandates injustice to
women, first by requiring disproportionate sacrifices from women for the
sake of the alleged goods to be obtained through procreation and second
by ignoring women’s right not to reproduce.
Any theory about the ethics of having children cannot overlook the ne-
cessity of both concern for women’s well-being and respect for women’s
autonomy. Only by regarding so-called population ethics in utterly ab-
stract and impersonal terms can these fundamental aspects of the “why
have children?” decision be overlooked. An unmitigated devotion to the
maximization of good by the production of more and more children is
likely to ignore the right not to reproduce, instead seeing the hardships
and lack of freedom experienced by a woman whose life is devoted to
reproduction as outweighed by the prospective well-being of the children
she produces.
As many critics have noted in other contexts, what utilitarianism rou-
tinely expects of us is supererogation—going above and beyond the call
of duty. Maximization in population ethics requires women to go way
above and beyond the call of duty at the expense both of their right not to
reproduce and of their health and well-being. But none of us has an obli-
gation to create the greatest possible amount of good at every point. If we
were constantly trying to create the largest possible amount of good, we
would be forced to lead very different lives, sacrificing ourselves almost
to the point of collapse and ignoring many of our basic human rights. We
might very well have to neglect our own relationships, commitments, and
work. Perhaps some of us ought to give away our children to other people
because other adults can make them happier or would be made happier
than we are by raising our children.3 The fact that we are not doing these
things means, according to utilitarianism, that we are almost never doing
what is right—a counterintuitive implication that suggests that utilitari-
anism demands too much.
Of course, a utilitarian might respond that if in fact we can do more
good by attending to our own relationships, commitments, and work
than by helping others, then of course we should not neglect them. But
my point is a different (though not new) one: that we ought not to neglect
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    75

our own relationships, commitments, and work even if there are other
ways by which we can produce more good. A woman may have a par-
ticular commitment to a job, an artistic project, or a relationship; she may
have dedicated herself to politics, science, or the care of younger siblings.
These commitments are a core part of her sense of herself and her views
about how to live her life; they are, for her, a matter of integrity (Smart
and Williams 1973, 99). In many cases, it would simply be wrong for her
to abandon these commitments in order to create babies, even if those
babies will grow into happy and fulfilled adults.4
Rather than maximizing good across the board, our moral obligations
for several reasons tend to be strongest in relation to those closest to
us—our family members, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, our
coworkers. First, we have usually made a commitment, explicit or im-
plicit, to care about their well-being. Second, we can be more effective
in doing good for those who are close to us. We are more likely to know
their needs, wants, and abilities. We are more likely to interact directly
with them.
Moreover, a principle that requires maximizing good does not work
as a general moral rule even for one’s own self. As Michael Parker points
out, any attempt to achieve the best possible life “would need to factor in
the effects of perfectionism itself” and might make “even the achievement
of the good enough difficult.” Perfectionism is likely to render people
dissatisfied with the lives they have and to engage them in a “constant
drive for self-improvement which would inevitably be both exhausting
and unlikely to lead to stable, satisfying or deep interpersonal relation-
ships” (2007, 282).
For all of the reasons I have discussed (respect for women’s well-being
and autonomy; supererogation; obligations to one’s existing relationships
and commitments; and the dangers of perfectionism), it is implausible to
claim that women have an obligation to have large numbers of children
because of the potential net good that children may experience or contrib-
ute. In other words, a simplistic utilitarianism is wrong about the ethics
of having children.
To return to the question with which I started this chapter, we can
most easily explain the absence of any duty to make happy people (as op-
posed to making people happy) by reference to the injustice, especially to
women, that such a duty would create. Women and men have a right not
76    Chapter 5

to reproduce. That is, men do not have to provide sperm, and women are
entitled to control their bodies and their reproductive functions in order
to protect themselves from the sacrifices that procreation may demand.
Those rights militate against any supposed duty or obligation to repro-
duce in any way, even if entirely happy people would be the result.
In chapter 9, in a discussion of the possibility of human extinction, I
say more about consequentialist arguments regarding the general value of
children to society. For now, I turn to an examination of consequential-
ist arguments regarding the putative benefits children may bring to their
own parents and siblings.

Economic Benefits for Parents

One traditional consequentialist reason for having children is to help sup-

port the family. In the past (and even today in some parts of the world),
children were the parents’ only form of old-age pension. Children were
needed for their labor—in the fields, the stable, the barn, the workshop,
and the house. Once past the age of seven or so, a child would quickly go
from being an economic liability to being an economic asset, even in fairly
well-off families (see, e.g., Ariès 1962, 365–369). Children were valuable—
not intrinsically valuable, but valuable in terms of their labor power.
By the mid–twentieth century in the West, children were becoming in
economic terms mostly a liability and a growing one at that. As a result,
the economic argument for procreation now looks implausible. It takes
several hundred thousand dollars to raise children—money spent not
only in feeding, clothing, and housing them, but in giving them the neces-
sary education that will enable them to survive and thrive in economies
where knowledge and technologies play greater and greater roles. More-
over, children are also expensive in terms of “opportunity costs”: the
foregone income that their parents give up to raise them. Someone must
care for the children. Parents must either do it themselves or pay others
to do it. If they do it themselves, they are foregoing the income they can
otherwise earn in the labor market. It is usually the mother who foregoes
this income, along with the pension that she might otherwise accumulate.
Moreover, as is well known, women who participate in the labor mar-
ket after having children often pay an additional price for motherhood
in terms of having fewer chances for advancement, being regarded as
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    77

“not serious” about their careers, falling behind in experience and cur-
rent knowledge, being regarded as casual or expendable labor, and so on.
And even if one hopes that decades down the line one’s children will be
a source of support in one’s old age, present observations show that this
support cannot be counted upon. In a few cases, it’s a matter of willful
neglect by adult children of their aging parents. In some cases, it may be
that the adult children feel they owe their parents nothing. In other cases,
it’s a matter of the adult children’s having multiple familial and economic
allegiances, so that precisely when their elderly parents may need support,
the adult children are also being called upon to pay for the education of
their adolescent children. And in some cases, for a host of reasons, adult
children barely have enough money to support themselves, let alone their
Therefore, anyone who has children for the sake of the supposed fi-
nancial support they can provide is not only not justified in so doing but
probably deluded. The economic value of children to parents is not a
reason that in these days can make having children an obligation or even
serve as the sole justification for procreation.

Psychological Benefits for Parents

I knew that children could teach you how to pay attention, but by the same token
so can shingles, and I knew that children gave you so many excuses to celebrate,
only half of them false. You will have to forgive me for using these terms: Children
can connect you to the child inside you, who can still play and be silly and helpless
and needy and capable of wonder. (Lamott 2007, 184)

Barring wartime or other social or political crisis, it is hard for me to understand

any woman deciding not to have a child if she could (financially, physically, emo-
tionally). There is nothing in my own life that could possibly have been more im-
portant or a greater source of joy and fulfillment. (Nedelsky 1999, 312)

When people are asked informally to explain why they want to have chil-
dren or why they had the children they had, they often speak in conse-
quentialist terms of potential benefits for themselves: “I love children”;
“I love being pregnant”; “I will not be fulfilled unless I have a child”; “I
don’t want to miss out on the experience of parenting;” “To relive my
own childhood”; “So I won’t be lonely”; “I just want someone to love
me.” The Planned Parenthood Association says that people explain their
desire for children as follows: “To give someone the opportunities I never
78    Chapter 5

had. To have a child to be like me. To keep me company. To pass on be-

liefs, values and ideas to” (quoted in Bergum 1997, 29). More cynically,
Corinne Maier remarks, “We procreate in order to exact revenge on a dis-
appointing life. We are convinced we can save our child from the mistakes
that we believe victimized us” (2007, 62–63).
Many people believe the best reason for having a child is simply that
doing so will make the parents happy. But the evidence in support of that
belief is not very strong. There is not room here to survey all the data,
but the fact that so much of it fails to support a connection between
parenthood and happiness should give pause to anyone who thinks pro-
creation will inevitably make them happier. Indeed, Nattavudh Powdtha-
vee writes, “There is an almost zero association between having children
and happiness” (2009, 308). The belief that having children will bring
happiness is transmitted to later generations much more readily than the
belief that children will bring unhappiness because persons who hold the
latter view will likely not have children and hence transmit the belief,
whereas those who hold the former belief will procreate and pass it on
(Powdthavee 2009, 309). The belief’s transmissibility, however, does not
make it true. Powdthavee states that the empirical evidence shows that
parents “often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness
. . . life satisfaction . . . marital satisfaction . . . and mental well-being …
compared with non-parents” (2009, 308). As Daniel Gilbert points out,
the research indicates that heterosexual couples start out happy in their
marriages “and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of
their lives together, getting close to their original levels of satisfaction only
when their children leave home” (2005, 243).
One of the few academic dissenters to this message is economist Bryan
Caplan, who argues that the gap between the happiness of those with
children and those without is small; parents, he believes, are almost as
happy as nonparents. Moreover, he says, empirical studies indicate that
if childless adults had their lives to do over, most would choose to be
parents. Parenthood, he says, “wins hands down” (2010). He also argues
that we need not see weak parenting as costly to children because par-
ents’ influence is overstated. Twin studies suggest that nurture has few
long-term effects: “If you think that your kids’ future rests in your hands,
you’ll probably make many painful ‘investments’—and feel guilty that
you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    79

in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break” and hence
enjoy parenthood to a greater extent. In fact, Caplan urges that his he-
donic calculus actually implies “Buy more”—that is, have more children.
The costs of raising children are “frontloaded, and the benefits are back-
loaded”; that is, babies are a great deal of work, but parents will one day
be begging for time with their offspring.
However, many people do not accept Caplan’s message. In an article
scarily titled “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” Jen-
nifer Senior (2010) cites a variety of empirical evidence that “parents are
less happy than nonparents.” Children generate “unrivaled moments of
frustration, tedium, anxiety, heartbreak.” Although children provide their
parents with “moments of transcendence,” they are nonetheless “all joy
and no fun.”
Perhaps the reason for the alleged paucity of fun is that “raising chil-
dren is probably the toughest and the dullest job in the world” (Powdtha-
vee 2009, 310)—hyperbole to be sure: coal mining, garbage collecting,
and human-waste processing can easily compete with and surpass child
rearing in terms of toughness and dullness. Nonetheless, in prosperous
regions in the twenty-first century children are “not only a great expense
but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed” (Senior
2010), all of which takes a lot of work. Parents are spending more time
with their children than they did in 1975, despite the fact that women are
doing more paid work than in the past (Senior 2010).
As a result, it’s a mistake to rely on procreation as a guarantor of happi-
ness, at least in the short term. As Judith Timson trenchantly puts it, “Par-
ents today need to get over expecting to be intrinsically happy or rewarded
doing what people have dutifully done for millennia under sometimes as-
tonishingly adverse conditions: create and raise the next generation. The
search for perfect happiness through parenting is not only counterproduc-
tive, it’s a luxury that only the affluent can afford” (2010, 3).
Not only is it risky to have a child to make oneself happy; it is also
inconsiderate of the child. Childless people are sometimes said to be self-
ish, but the standard reasons people give for having children sound rather
selfish or at the very least self-oriented. Interestingly, the childless women
in Leslie Cannold’s empirical study found it difficult to come up with
what they considered to be truly adequate reasons for having children.
Instead, they generated a list of self-oriented reasons that they regarded
80    Chapter 5

as bad or wrong—such as “to quell boredom; to remedy dissatisfaction

at work; to do what everyone else is doing (stay ‘in-step’); because time
is running out; to avoid loneliness in old age; to hold a relationship to-
gether; to adhere to female socialization to mother; to experience preg-
nancy; [and] to have a child to satisfy one’s own needs without adequate
consideration of the child’s need” (2003, 280).
Most people would probably agree that these reasons are weak. They
are weak in part because, like procreating to become happy, they are im-
practical: there is no guarantee whatsoever that having children will hold
a marriage together, resolve one’s personal problems, or alleviate loneli-
ness in old age. More important, however, they are weak because they
are selfish: they propose to use a child to enhance one’s own well-being
without concern for the child’s well-being. It is hardly fair to use a vulner-
able, dependent, nonautonomous person to fix an adult person’s life. This
notion—using the child for purposes that have nothing to do with the
child’s welfare—is unfortunately characteristic of many reasons typically
given for having children. We saw this in chapter 4 in the discussion of the
deontological arguments for procreation, and we see it now with respect
to the consequentialist arguments. To have a child in order to benefit one-
self is a moral error. It risks a future child’s happiness and well-being in
order to promote good for oneself. If the child’s own life is unhappy, then
the child has been sacrificed to the parent’s well-being. Even if the child is
happy, he is still being used as a means to satisfy the parent’s goals.
But perhaps it is inevitable that, whatever one’s reasons for having a
child, the child will end up serving as a means to some end (Gibson 1995,
236). Some argue that the main question is whether there are reasons for
having children that do not treat them only as a means, but just in part
(Cannold 2003, 286). British philosopher Susanne Gibson, for example,
suggests that what are needed are reasons for having children that are
“compatible with treating them at the same time as an end, or to put it
another way, with respecting them as an equal human being” (1995, 237).
Gibson is saying that whatever an individual’s original motive for pro-
creation, selfish or self-oriented though it may be, if the child is treated
with respect once it exists, then we need not worry about the reasons for
creating it. I don’t find this suggestion convincing. I think the motives for
creating a child do matter, and they matter at least in part for consequen-
tialist reasons, as I attempt to show in the next section.
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    81

“Savior Siblings”

Consider the possibility that the needs of an existing child might provide
a good consequentialist reason for having a baby who will be a sibling to
her. By definition, of course, this reason can never apply to the first child,
only to subsequent children. Some parents have a second child just be-
cause they want their first to have the experience of a sibling. But a more
pressing case is the one in which the first child has an apparent medical
need for a “savior sibling.”
“Savior sibling” is the media name for a child who is conceived, ges-
tated, and delivered in order to provide umbilical cord blood, or, even
more contentious, bone marrow desperately needed by the parents’ older
child (Mills 2005, 2). Without the stem cells obtained from the blood or
bone marrow, the ill elder sibling will die. In order to try to ensure that the
savior sibling is a close genetic match for the ill older child, IVF, preim-
plantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and tissue typing are usually carried
out (Boyle and Savulescu 2001).
Contrary to the majority of opinions expressed in the bioethical lit-
erature (e.g., Boyle and Savulescu 2001; Robertson, Kahn, and Wagner
2002; Sheldon and Wilkinson 2004; Spriggs 2005), I believe that creating
a child to serve as a savior sibling is not justified. That is, the consequen-
tialist argument that it is morally justified to have a child for the sake
of her potential medical benefit to an existing sibling is unsuccessful. To
show this, in the following six sections I present and evaluate the argu-
ments commonly given in support of creating children as savior siblings.

Reproductive Freedom
First, it might be argued that having the second child as a savior sibling is
a simple exercise of reproductive freedom on the parents’ part. People are
entitled to choose whether to have children, and creating a savior sibling
is part of that entitlement.
I agree, at least in the sense that we should respect human beings’ en-
titlement to decide when, where, and how they will have their biological
children and how many. That is, as I argued in chapter 2, individuals have
a negative right not to be interfered with in reproduction. I do not criticize
savior siblings on these grounds. But the negative right to reproduce does
not by itself vindicate the use of IVF, PGD, and tissue typing to create a
82    Chapter 5

child in order to be a savior sibling. And even if the creation of a savior

sibling did not require expensive reproductive technologies, there are, as
I show, moral arguments against it that make the exercise of reproductive
freedom unjustified.

Illness-Free Existence
It might be argued that the savior sibling himself is benefited because
the use of PGD that contributed to his existence increases the chance
that he will not have the disease that is killing his older sibling (Spriggs
2005, 341). Sally Sheldon and Steven Wilkinson, however, point out that,
strictly speaking, PGD does not benefit the child by causing him to be free
of illness through curing him or removing a disorder. Rather, PGD merely
lets medical personnel know which one(s) of the embryos created through
IVF are free or likely to be free of disease or disorder. Hence, if PGD is a
benefit at all to the savior sibling, it is a benefit only because it contributes
to causing medical personnel to implant the embryo from which the child
develops (2004, 535). It is not as if the child might have had an existence
plagued by disease from which he was saved by medical science; it is this
existence or none at all.
Sheldon and Wilkinson do not think that creating savior siblings is
morally problematic, and they defend the practice. Nonetheless, their
point serves to undermine the idea that savior siblings are benefited from
the process of being produced as savior siblings. They are no more ben-
efited than are any children that are created through IVF and PGD. And
what is the benefit? Simple disease-free existence. Thus, if the defender of
savior siblings wants to insist that disease-free existence is a benefit, then
the defender is also committed to saying that all disease-free children are
benefited by being caused to come into existence, whatever the cause. But
that claim is unhelpful to the goal of defending savior siblings, for the
argument then fails to pick out any particular benefit unique to savior sib-
lings. (Whether children are in fact benefited from coming into existence
is a topic that I turn to in chapter 6.)5

Saving a Life
The most important argument in support of creating savior siblings is
that they end up producing an essential and hugely valuable effect: saving
a human life. David Benatar suggests that children are always created to
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    83

serve as means to some sort of end (2006, 129–130). Sheldon and Wilkin-
son agree. Among the “instrumental” uses of children they list “‘complet-
ing a family,’ being a playmate for an existing child, saving a marriage,
delighting prospective grandparents, [and] providing an heir.” They sug-
gest that “having a child as a means . . . is not in itself objectionable,”
provided one does not “discard” the child once it has served its purpose
(2004, 534). Robert Boyle and Julian Savulescu also agree: “Though we
might aspire to a world where parents always dote on their children as
unconditional ends, in reality many children are born for a purpose: to
care for their parents, as a companion to a sibling, or to run the family
business. . . . Provided that parents love their child, there is little problem
with that child benefiting others” (2001, 1241). Perhaps, then, there is
no better reason to have a child than to save another one (Benatar 2006,
130–131). Without savior siblings, some children will die who could
otherwise have been saved. At the very least, as John Robertson, Jeffrey
Kahn, and John Wagner point out, having a savior sibling “doubles the
parents’ chances of having surviving children” (2002, 36). Hence, the
“onus of proof” is on those who condemn the creation of savior siblings
to show why they should reject this means of saving a child’s life (Sheldon
and Wilkinson 2004, 533).
But there are several problems with this kind of argument. First, the
argument depends on the assumption that it is morally unobjectionable
to create a baby for the various purposes of completing a family, giving a
playmate to an existing child, delighting grandparents, saving a marriage,
providing an heir, and so on. As I hope the discussion so far in this chapter
and in chapter 4 has shown, it is not self-evident that these reasons are
unobjectionable. The fact that infants are treated as means for fulfilling
adults’ goals in other cases does not in itself make it acceptable to treat an
infant as a means in the savior sibling case.
Second, the parents can’t know in advance whether the processes of
IVF and PGD will proceed without a hitch or whether the donation from
the new baby will indeed prevent the existing sibling from dying. The sib-
ling may die anyway, despite the donation from the new baby. The tissue
match may not be close enough, or there may be an error in the PGD and
tissue typing.
Despite this epistemic ambiguity, it may look as if creating a savior
sibling is a risk worth taking; the parents must simply be informed in
84    Chapter 5

advance that their attempt to create a match may fail. If they are willing
to take the chance and rear whatever child they get, then there is not a
moral problem. But the difficulty is that the parents cannot be sure what
their attitude will be if the ill child is not cured. They will then find them-
selves in a situation where they must continue both to care for the first
child, whom they have not helped as they intended and whose death is
now more certain than before, and to raise an additional child whom they
would not otherwise have procreated and who has failed to serve the pur-
pose for which she was created.6 No one can be confident that this failure
will not affect their attitudes toward the savior sibling.
The third problem with the “save a life” justification for creating sav-
ior siblings is that the parents are in a situation of conflict of interest.
Their two children’s interests do not coincide. The parents cannot be an
unbiased advocate or surrogate decision maker for the new baby because
they are acting on the basis of the first child’s interests.
Nevertheless, it might be argued that once the second child is born, it
is in his interests to contribute his blood or bone marrow: he is helping
to cure his ill sibling so that he will continue to have that sibling in his
life. (After all, if the younger sibling already existed, and an older sibling
turned out to be very ill and needed the younger one’s bone marrow, it
would not seem inappropriate for the younger one to donate—although
whether he can give informed consent will depend on his age.) Maybe the
savior sibling will eventually even “derive pleasure from knowing that he
has saved [the older child’s] life” (Sheldon and Wilkinson 2004, 536). In
addition, his parents will be so grateful and appreciative that they will
love him even more.
But here is the odd feature of this case: the savior sibling’s interests are
inseparable from the reasons for his existence. That is, the savior sibling’s
interests in curing the older child and in pleasing his parents through
his curative powers are the same as the reasons he was created. Now
it’s true that no child will have any interests whatsoever unless he exists.
But the particular interests that most other children have are not so di-
rectly connected to the reasons for their creation. The savior sibling has
certain interests (helping an older sibling, keeping the sibling alive, earn-
ing the gratitude of her parents) precisely because he was created to
benefit already-living family members. The needs of others preexist and
generate the child’s interests. The fulfillment of the savior sibling’s inter-
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    85

ests is dependent on his success in satisfying the other family members’

The situation is made even more objectionable because of the kinds of
benefits that are expected from the second child. For example, in order
to obtain the maximum amount of umbilical cord blood to assist the ill
older sibling, it is essential to clamp the new baby’s cord promptly. But
doing so deprives the baby himself of oxygenated blood that he would
otherwise receive if clamping is not immediate. Receiving that blood dur-
ing the time when the infant’s respiration is first being established increas-
es the baby’s iron levels (Hutchon 2006, 1073). For preterm infants, the
benefits of cord clamping delayed by one to three minutes may be even
greater, “with reductions in anaemia, intraventricular haemorrhage, and
the need for transfusion for hypovolaemia [decreased blood volume]”
(Weeks 2007, 312).7
The extraction of bone marrow is even more problematic for the child
from whom it is taken. The extraction usually occurs within the child’s
first two years and can cause pain. The marrow is extracted either from
the hipbones or the sternum. Although the child is anaesthetized during
the “harvest,” the child may feel pain in the needle site(s) during his recov-
ery (Children’s Hospital Boston n.d.). A description of adults’ recovery
from bone marrow donation prescribes a week of recovery: “Common
side effects of this type of bone marrow donation can include nausea,
headache, and fatigue. These side effects are most often related to the an-
esthesia. Donors may also experience bruising or discomfort in the lower
back” (American Society of Clinical Oncology n.d.).
Thus, savior siblings may be subjected to one or more debilitating and
even painful medical procedures that they have not chosen, that are not
warranted by their own medical condition, and to which they cannot
give a meaningful informed consent. A medical procedure is ordinarily
undertaken to provide a health benefit to the individual who undergoes it.
But the savior sibling has nothing wrong with him. It is difficult, perhaps
impossible, to think of any other situation in which an individual who
is unable to give consent nevertheless undergoes medical procedures to
benefit another person (Spriggs 2005, 341).
Of course, human beings frequently treat each other as means, though
usually not only as means. And although the savior sibling functions as
a means, he is not only a means. The child will not be treated as a mere
86    Chapter 5

commodity. Supporters of the creation of savior siblings make a distinc-

tion between why the child was created and how he is treated once he is
here. Perhaps, as Sheldon and Wilkinson remark, “there is nothing objec-
tionable about creating a baby as a ‘means to an end’ provided that it is
also viewed and treated as a human being” (2004, 534).
After all, as already mentioned, the parents will very likely love the
second child just as they love the first child. Thus, the child both is used
as a means and is treated as an end. Robertson, Kahn, and Wagner sug-
gest that the very fact that the parents are willing to create another child
to protect and save the first one shows that they are “highly committed to
the well-being of their children, and that they will value the second child
for its own sake as well” (2002, 35).
If this is the case, then we can raise two questions. One is about the
balance of the means and the end. The other is about whether the end
justifies the means.

The Balance of Means and End

An important question here is whether the child is treated primarily as a
means and secondarily as an end or whether he is treated secondarily as
a means and primarily as an end (Chris Lowry, personal communication,
March 2008). As an example of the first type of balance, I am reminded
of a student who, after his course with me is over, is polite and consider-
ate but needs me (and regards me) primarily as a provider of a graduate-
school application reference. He uses me as a means to his own career
goals, but he is respectful in so doing and in that respect also treats me
as an end. I see nothing wrong with this use; the student is not my friend,
and he is no longer even my student; if he was a good student, I feel re-
sponsible for providing some mentoring and academic career support.
But surely that is not what a relationship with a child should be like. No
child, even if respected and cared for, should be primarily a means to his
parents’ and sibling’s ends. Such a treatment is inconsistent with a close,
warm, loving familial relationship in which a child can thrive while devel-
oping his own talents and purposes.
As an example of the second type of balance, think of a friendship
in which, in its beginnings perhaps, one person acquires certain benefits
from another and that is the reason they first get to know each other.
Writes Chris Lowry: “I’m finding it hard to think of a lot of examples
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    87

where treating others as ends is the primary over-riding reason from the
start. . . . In cases that involve freely doing something for someone or
freely choosing to build a relation with someone, . . . benefit to self (wide-
ly construed) very often plays an initial role” (personal communication,
March 2008).
Lowry may be correct that some friendships originate in that way.
Eventually, however, one no longer sees the other person just as a means
but instead comes to cherish the person as a valuable friend for her own
sake. Thus, the balance gradually tips from mostly treating the person as
a means to treating the person primarily as an end in herself. And when
a savior sibling is created as a means and once born is used as a means,
it is certainly better that his means-value gradually becomes secondary—
when and if it does—to his value as an end in himself.
In fact, however, some friendships do not start out with the individuals
seeing and treating each other primarily as means. In cases where from
the start it is a true friendship that is sought, each person tries to value the
other for her own sake, to recognize what is unique and interesting about
her, and to treat her with friendly respect. The case of procreation is or at
least ought to be much more like the second path to friendship, where the
relationship is wanted not because it serves other purposes, but because
the person is valued for herself.
It admittedly might be unusual and maybe even morally worrying for
someone to have a child without wanting at least some benefits from
doing so; in that sense, I suppose, the prospective parent prepares to use
the child as a means. Similarly, one would probably not seek a friendship
without wanting any benefits from the friend. But to be morally sound,
both the motivation and the justification for forming the friendship or
having the child need to be about much more than what the friend or
the child can do for one. Moreover, just as in a friendship the benefits
obtained from the friend are derived from valuing this particular friend
for her own sake, so also in a parent–child relationship the benefits come
precisely because the parents value this particular child for his own sake.
The child cannot be created for his own sake because he does not pre-
exist his conception, but once born he can and should be valued for his
own sake, and doing so precludes using him as a medical resource for an-
other child. The parents, instead of wanting a child merely for the benefits
the child may bring them, can seek to create a child whose unique value
88    Chapter 5

they will recognize and cherish and with whom they will have a parental
relationship. There is a crucial moral difference between creating a child
in order to benefit existing individuals and creating a child in order to
value the child herself. Saying this does not mean that the child has value
before he exists; it means that when he exists, he is valued for himself, not
just used for others. In procreating, the parents should undertake to cre-
ate a being whom they will value for his own sake.
In at least one important respect, of course, the developing relation-
ship between parent and child is significantly different from a developing
friendship. The difference in procreation is that the parent not only starts
to build a relationship with the child but actually creates the person with
whom she has the relationship. In choosing to become a parent, one sets
out to create a relationship, and one also uniquely sets out to create the
person with whom one has the relationship. One would think, then, that
the moral responsibility to treat with respect and care the person who is
created would be even greater than in a case where one has not created
the other person in the relationship.
One would not start a relationship of any kind with a stranger by ex-
pecting—let alone demanding—the donation of blood or bone marrow.
Yet that is exactly what happens in the case of savior siblings. The familial
relationships—between parents and child as well as between the savior
sibling and his ill sibling—start out with the new baby’s being required
to serve the rest of his family. If this requirement is not acceptable in a
developing friendship with an adult, I cannot see how it can be acceptable
in a developing relationship with a new baby.

Does the End Justify the Means?

The problem with the creation of the savior sibling, then, is that the new
person who is created is created to be used. Perhaps, however, it might
be retorted that the case of savior siblings is a situation in which the end
justifies the means. The end or goal is an extremely good one: saving an
existing child. At the point at which parents turn to the creation of a
savior sibling, there is no other way in which to save the existing child.
Indeed, Merle Spriggs goes so far as to say that the life of the ill older
sibling trumps other moral conditions in this situation and in any other
comparable one, even in the absence of informed consent from the donor
(2005, 341 and 342).
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    89

To test whether this claim is as plausible as Spriggs assumes, let’s con-

sider some related cases. First, imagine that the parents whose child is ill
are unable or even unwilling to have another child. Instead, they want to
adopt an orphaned child who is an adequate genetic match for their own
child. The adopted child will then be used as a source of blood and bone
marrow in an effort to cure their sick child. If creating a savior sibling is
morally acceptable, then shouldn’t adopting one also be?
I suspect that many people would reject using an adopted child in that
way. But if they see nothing wrong with a genetically related savior sib-
ling, they should not have qualms about an adopted savior sibling. There
are only two differences between the gestated savior sibling and the ad-
opted savior sibling: in the adoption situation, the child already exists,
and the child is not genetically related to the adopters (even though the
adoptee would have to be a genetic match to the sick child). It is hard
to see why these differences would make using the adopted child as a
“savior” deeply morally different. In the twenty-first century, following
the UN’s recognition of the rights of children, the mere facts of having
gestated a child and being genetically related to it do not give one owner-
ship over it. Hence, a genetic relationship to a child does not make using
the child more acceptable than using a genetically unrelated child would
be. If anything, as I suggested earlier, the instrumental use of the expressly
gestated savior sibling might in fact be more problematic because that
child is created precisely in order to be used.
Of course, it might be pointed out that the adopted child is vulnerable;
having lost its original parents, it is then transferred to new ones without
being able to give consent. But the genetically related child is just as vul-
nerable and also cannot give consent to being used as a medical resource.
I suggest that anyone who has moral qualms about using an adopted
child as a savior sibling should also have misgivings about creating a ge-
netically related child to use as a savior sibling.
If the savior sibling is used for what he was created or adopted for, then
he is being used, even if he is otherwise loved and well cared for. And if
using a savior sibling is morally justified, then many otherwise morally
questionable treatments of children would also seem to be morally justi-
fied. Bone marrow is a renewable human substance. Consider what we
might call nonrenewable resources, such as organs. Imagine choosing to
have another child in order to provide a kidney for an existing child. In
90    Chapter 5

her novel My Sister’s Keeper (2004), author Jodi Picoult depicts a savior
sibling who is required throughout her young life to give repeated dona-
tions of blood and bone marrow and finally is asked for a kidney. My
point here is not so much that having a child to provide bone marrow
for an existing child will inevitably result in someone’s having a child
in order to provide nonrenewable bodily organs. This is not a “slippery
slope” argument about the morally questionable behaviors that creating
savior siblings may lead us to.8 It is instead an argument about the scope
and limits of moral justification and the significance of moral motivation
in procreation. The Infertility Treatment Authority of Victoria, Australia,
has opined that “the harvesting of organs such as kidneys [from savior
siblings] is not acceptable” (Spriggs and Savulescu 2002, 289), but the
reason is not clear. My point is that if having a child to provide bone mar-
row is considered morally acceptable, it becomes much harder to know
whether or why there is anything wrong with having a child in order to
provide a kidney.
Perhaps the defender of savior siblings would say that the answer is
built into the question: bone marrow is renewable, whereas a kidney is
not. But I’m not sure they are so very different. After all, the child has two
kidneys. His life will be a little more difficult with only one, but he can
accommodate himself to it. And his donated kidney will enable his sibling
to live. Isn’t the life of the older child worth the cost to the savior sibling
of giving up a kidney? If saving the life of the older child is defined as the
paramount value, then many possible uses for savior siblings will come to
seem to be morally justified.
Suppose, for example, that it is not an older sibling who needs the do-
nation from the “savior,” but rather one of the child’s parents, as has ap-
parently happened in the Netherlands (Devolder 2005, 585).9 Or imagine
that a couple produces a savior offspring in order to sell the savior sib-
ling’s blood, bone marrow, or kidney to the parents of another child who
is in desperate need of bodily substances or parts and will die without
them. The savior’s bodily substances and parts thereby benefit the other
family’s child and increase his own family’s level of material well-being.
Or, in case it is thought that it is the selling of bodily substances and or-
gans that makes the situation morally wrong, imagine that the parents are
more generous and simply give away their child’s blood, bone marrow, or
kidney to another couple’s needy child, whose life is thereby preserved.
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    91

Such possibilities may provoke a visceral reaction of distaste and rejec-

tion. But if saving a human life trumps other considerations, as Spriggs
and others appear to believe, then it is hard to know why these imagined
cases are wrong. In none of them does the savior child consent—but in
the standard cases with which I started out, savior siblings do not consent
to donating their blood or bone marrow. So it can’t be the absence of
consent that makes it wrong to have a child in order to provide bodily
substances or organs to his parent or wrong to give away his bodily sub-
stances or organs to someone else’s child. It is difficult for me to see why
the fact that one’s existing child is terminally ill justifies the choice to
have another child as a savior sibling, whereas the fact that a parent is
terminally ill or someone else’s child is terminally ill does not. I submit
that neither the sibling relationship nor the genetic connection is enough
to make choosing to have a savior sibling morally justified. That is, if it is
not right to have a child to save a parent or to save someone else’s child,
then it is not right to have a child to save an older sibling. The end does
not in this situation justify the means.

Psychological Damage to Savior Siblings?

In arguing against the creation of savior siblings, I have said nothing
about the potential psychological impact of the role on the savior sibling
himself, and this is for several reasons. First, the question of the psycho-
logical impact of being created as a savior sibling is an empirical issue,
and I know of no studies so far that have examined these effects.10 But,
second, even if such studies are undertaken, the findings would, in my
view, be irrelevant. Interestingly, Sheldon and Wilkinson take the same
view. Indeed, they think that even if it can be shown that savior siblings
are on average “less happy than other children,” that fact (if it were a
fact) would not be enough to count against the creation of savior siblings
because, say Sheldon and Wilkinson, such children are unlikely to have
lives that are worse than not being alive at all; their lives are likely to be
worth living. If we think that the lives of persons with impairments are
worth living despite their impairments, then we should also be willing
to support the creation of savior siblings, who in all likelihood will have
lives that are worth living (Sheldon and Wilkinson 2004, 536, my empha-
sis). Robertson, Kahn, and Wagner go so far as to say that because the
child would not otherwise have existed, the child would not be harmed
92    Chapter 5

even if his parents gave him away if he was not a good match or if “they
had obtained the umbilical cord blood and were not interested in rearing
[him]” (2002, 36).
I suspect that these researchers are correct that savior siblings do have
lives that are worth living. However, I do not share Sheldon and Wilkin-
son’s sanguine attitude toward the possibility that such children might
be less happy than others, and I reject the suggestion that the creation of
a savior sibling would be justified even if he was given up for adoption.
Such a view implies that mere existence can compensate for all manner
of mistreatment and even abandonment of children. (In the next chapter,
I discuss the question whether mere existence is a benefit.) Nonetheless,
claims about the psychology of savior siblings are, I believe, unnecessary
to my case. My objections rest not upon the potential psychological dam-
age to the child (although for all we know there may be some), but rather
upon a view of what parent–child relationships are and ought to be.
Advocates of the legitimacy of creating savior siblings might argue that
every chosen child comes into existence because of the needs or desires
of one or both parents. That fact does not mean that the child cannot be
appreciated and loved. In that respect, savior siblings are not significantly
morally different from other children.
By contrast, I suggest that the important moral question about any sav-
ior sibling is whether he would have been brought into existence at all if
there was not a need for his cord blood or bone marrow. Even though the
child cannot be brought into existence for his own sake—that is, to maxi-
mize his interests (because he does not preexist his own conception)—we
can ask whether the child, once created, is wanted by his parents for his
own sake—that is, whether he is valued for himself, not just valued for
the benefits that he may bring to his parents and sibling(s). If the answer
is no, then the child has been immorally made into a means, and, hence,
choosing to have such a child is morally wrong.
It might be argued that this standard is too high. How many children
are in fact wanted for their own sake rather than as means to an end?
Perhaps not as many as we might hope. Nevertheless, the question here
is not what our motives are, but what they should be—not what rea-
sons people usually have for choosing to have offspring, but what rea-
sons might justify the choice. Parents of savior siblings may complain
that in no other circumstance are potential parents’ motives “put under
Consequentialist Reasons for Having Children    93

a microscope prior to conception” (Spriggs and Savulescu 2002, 289).

My goal in this argument is not to police people’s procreative motives
but rather to show that procreative motives do matter and to encourage
more careful ethical evaluation of one procreative motive that bioethicists
have widely considered to be justifiable. In general, what is potentially
problematic in the case of savior siblings is treating the child—in fact,
any child—as a primary source of benefits to others, whether the parents
or the existing siblings. Choosing to procreate is not or ought not to be a
mere cost–benefit decision.


The consequentialist reasons that people advance to justify having a child

are at least inadequate and unpersuasive and in some cases are downright
foolhardy or immoral. These reasons can be condemned on both con-
sequentialist and deontological grounds because they overlook women’s
and children’s well-being and because they are potentially unjust to mem-
bers of both groups. Given the paucity of very strong reasons to have
children, it is safe to say that there is also no general obligation to have
Indeed, it is extraordinarily difficult to find reasons to have a child
that stand up to three crucial moral tests: first, concern for women’s and
children’s well-being; second, respect for women’s autonomy; and third,
refusal to use the child or the mother as a mere instrument for the accom-
plishment of some other goal.
Not “Better Never to Have Been”

In chapter 5, I noted in the discussion of savior siblings the obvious fact

that children do not come into existence by choice. Indeed, “I didn’t ask
to be born!” is a reproach some children bring against their parents. Giv-
en that by the very nature of their situation it is impossible for children
to consent to coming into existence, it is essential to ask whether human
beings are benefited or harmed or neither by coming into existence. An-
swering that question is an important step in figuring out whether, when,
and why procreation is morally justified or unjustified.
Such a question is not only of theoretical philosophical interest; it is
also a pragmatic issue. In the United States, some lawsuits brought on
behalf of seriously impaired children allege that the children suffer from
“wrongful life.” A claim of “wrongful life” is a civil suit “brought by a
child (typically a congenitally disabled child) who seeks damages for bur-
dens he suffers that result from his creation. Typically, the child charges
that he has been born into an unwanted or miserable life” (Shiffrin 1999,
117). In other words, so serious is the child’s suffering that it would have
been better if he had not existed.
Some philosophers argue that bringing an individual into existence can
benefit that individual (e.g., Parfit 1984, 487–490). Those of us who are
parents probably take for granted, without further discussion, that the
children whom we have brought or will bring into existence will on the
whole be happy and that their lives will be worth living. Indeed, people
often assume that their offspring should be grateful to their parents for
giving them life. If they are correct, then the justification for having the
child would be the child’s own benefit. And the empirical evidence sup-
ports the belief that most people around the world are at least satisfied
with and often very happy about their lives (Myers 2000).1
96    Chapter 6

Yet children can also be harmed by coming into existence. As Seana

Valentine Shiffrin points out,2 procreation “ineliminably involves serious
moral hazards. . . . [I]t faces difficult justificatory hurdles because it in-
volves imposing serious harms and risks on someone who is not in danger
of suffering greater harm if one does not act.” In every case, voluntary
procreation imposes an unconsented-to burden on a person, even though
“the imposition is not necessitated by the need to avert greater harm”
(Shiffrin 1999, 136, 139). Hence, there is a moral responsibility to ensure
that there are very good reasons indeed for subjecting another person to
the hazards of existence. The burden of proof, or at least the burden of
evidence, is on the person who wants to have children.
But in a recent book chillingly titled Better Never to Have Been: The
Harm of Coming into Existence, David Benatar argues vehemently that
“coming into existence is always a serious harm” (2006, 1, emphasis add-
ed; subsequent citations to this work give page references only). The en-
tire book is devoted to defending this claim, but as Benatar acknowledges,
the main argument behind it is quite straightforward: “Although the good
things in one’s life make it go better than it otherwise would have gone,
one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed.
Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into ex-
istence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen
one had one not come into existence” (1).
If Benatar is correct, then there is always a fundamental and irrevo-
cable reason not to procreate. Not only does Benatar undermine the
platitude that procreation is a prima facie good and that the decision to
reproduce requires little moral reflection; he provides an argument that,
if correct, means that procreation is never good and that moral reflection
about reproducing should lead us to give it up3 (Sue Donaldson, personal
communication, February 17, 2008).
Someone encountering Benatar’s argument for the first time might
point out in response that those who come into existence, especially in
the wealthy and privileged West, are also likely to experience benefits—
material goods, pleasant experiences, family relationships, education, and
accomplishments. It might be urged that those benefits in almost every
case outweigh the harms (pain, illness, dashed hopes, unrequited love,
and so on) that these people may also suffer.
Benatar’s counterargument relies on what he thinks is a key “asym-
metry” (30) between the absence of good and the absence of bad: “The
Not “Better Never to Have Been”    97

Scenario A Scenario B
X exists X never exists

(1) (2)

Presence of pain Absence of pain

(Bad) (Good)

(3) (4)

Presence of pleasure Absence of pleasure

(Good) (Not Bad)

Figure 6.1
Source: David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Ex-
istence (London: Oxford University Press, 2006), figure 2.1. Reprinted by permis-
sion of Oxford University Press.

absence of bad things, such as pain, is good even if there is nobody to

enjoy that good, whereas the absence of good things, such as pleasure, is
bad only if there is somebody who is deprived of these good things. The
implication of this is that the avoidance of the bad by never existing is a
real advantage over existence, whereas the loss of certain goods by not
existing is not a real disadvantage over never existing” (14). Benatar uses
the diagram given in figure 6.1 to illustrate his thesis (38).
I believe that Benatar’s theory that it is better never to have existed
is fatally flawed and that he therefore does not succeed in establishing a
strong argument against all procreation. Three criticisms show why and
one criticism demonstrates the potentially dangerous consequences of ac-
cepting Benatar’s theory.

Criticism 1

Here I accept for the sake of argument Benatar’s assumption that value is
impersonal—that is, that it is legitimate to ascribe value to the absence or
98    Chapter 6

avoidance of good or bad, even without any sentient being to experience

the absence. But the absence or avoidance of bad things and the absence
of good things are not asymmetrical in the way that Benatar believes,
for although the absence or avoidance of bad things is, as he says, good,
the absence of good things is also at least sometimes bad, even if there
is nobody who is deprived of those good things. That is, Benatar’s claim
that absent good things are not bad is false, and his asymmetry does not
There is an effective and an ineffective way of making this argument.
The ineffective way would proceed as follows. Think about an uninspir-
ing, flat education—serviceable but boring. Or parents who do an ad-
equate job of raising their children, but the experience for the children is
joyless. Or a holiday where no disaster happens, but the weather is just
poor enough that the vacationers miss out on most of the pleasures of the
area they visit. In all those cases, we’d be inclined to say, the absence of
pleasures is bad.
In response, Benatar stresses that his point is that pleasures that are
absent because the individual who would have experienced them does not
exist are different from pleasures that are absent in the life of an existing
person. The absence of the former is not bad, although the absence of the
latter may be bad. “We regret suffering but not the absent pleasures of
those who could have existed [but never did]” (35), he says.
A refutation of Benatar’s claim that the asymmetry of the absence
of bad and the absence of good always holds begins with the following
thought experiment. Imagine a nation of ten million people. Five million
of them suffer from chronic illness and experience great and unremitting
pain. The other five million are free of chronic illness and are able to ex-
perience happiness and fulfillment. One of God’s angels appeals to God4
and says, “Surely the suffering of five million of these people is too great.
Can you not do something about it?” God agrees. “I will roll back time,”
says God, “and fix these five million people so that they do not suffer
from chronic illness and pain.” Time is rolled back, the unfortunate five
million are re-created, but this time without their original vulnerability to
chronic illness and pain. Like the originally happy 50 percent, they, too,
are now capable of happiness and fulfillment, and the angel is pleased.
But after the angel appeals to God, God might alternatively say, “I
see that these five million people are suffering. I will roll back time and
Not “Better Never to Have Been”    99

change things so that this entire nation of individuals, all ten million of
them, will not exist. That way, the suffering of five million does not exist.”
Time is rolled back, the nation of people no longer exists, and so a fortiori
there is no chronic illness or pain and no suffering whatsoever.
I suggest that in this second scenario the angel would be justified in be-
ing appalled by God’s actions. The nonexistence of the good of the happy
and fulfilled five million is far too high a price to pay for the absence of
bad of the suffering five million. What the thought experiment shows is
that, contrary to Benatar’s claim, the absence of good can be bad, not
“not bad.”5 The angel is correct to regret God’s failure to re-create the
five million happy people; mere indifference on the angel’s part would be
I think another important point can be made if we imagine that God
responds to the angel’s horror by trying another approach. Once again,
then, God rolls back time, but this time he re-creates the nation with only
the original happy five million in existence. The suffering five million do
not exist. But once again the angel is, I predict, disappointed, for the angel
believes correctly that with respect to most lives nonexistence is usually
too high a price to pay for the avoidance of pain.
Benatar might protest that my thought experiments are unfair. He
draws a useful and important distinction between asking whether a life
is worth starting and asking whether a life is worth continuing (22–28).
He says that the standards to be used in each case are quite different. The
requirements are much higher for judging that a life is not worth continu-
ing than for judging that a life is not worth starting.6 Thus, although the
amputation of an arm does not make the life of the amputee not worth
living, “it is better not to bring into existence somebody who will lack
a limb” (23). So Benatar might argue in response to the second version
of the story, when God rolls back time and the nation of ten million no
longer exists, that the existence of the hypothesized ten million people
may be worth continuing even though it may not have been worthwhile
for at least five million of them (indeed, in Benatar’s view, all ten million
of them) to be brought into existence in the first place. The reason, then,
that the angel is appalled in the second and third versions of the story is
that the angel sees that the standard for ending lives must be much higher
than the standard for not creating them in the first place.
100    Chapter 6

But in my thought experiment I am not comparing lives worth con-

tinuing with lives worth starting; I am, like Benatar, comparing existence
and nonexistence. In both cases, the question for God is not whether to
kill off the people, but rather whether to begin (or, more accurately, rebe-
gin) the lives of the individuals in the example.
Perhaps Benatar would then argue that the nonexistence of the good
people is bad, but only because it is bad for God him/herself and for the
angel. Therefore, I have not shown that the nonexistence of good things
is bad even when there is no one to experience their absence. But my
thought experiment would still make my point even without God and the
angel. Imagine that the original ten million people—five million happy,
five million suffering—exist in a godless universe. Then, for no reason
other than the mystery of the cosmos, there is a jump back in time. Time
passes again, but in this case the ten million do not exist. Then there is an-
other jump back in time, and now, after time passes, only the five million
happy folk exist. God is unnecessary to the thought experiment except as
an easily imaginable agent of change; the angel is merely the impetus that
gets God to make the changes. But even in a Godless, angel-free world—
provided we assume, with Benatar, that it is legitimate to ascribe value to
the absence or avoidance of good or bad even without any sentient being
to experience the absence or be deprived—the nonexistence of the happy
people is bad.
The angel’s first point (a reaction that I think most people would agree
with) is that the absence of good can be bad, as in the case where we
imagine that the five million happy and fulfilled people do not exist. The
angel’s second point is that in most cases nonexistence is (perhaps liter-
ally) an overkill solution to the problem of suffering, for it also prevents
the good in people’s lives. When we think about various people through-
out the planet who experience misery of various kinds, we do not usually
conclude that they would be better off never having existed. In a few
cases, that may be true, where the suffering is severe, unremitting, and un-
avoidable. But in most cases we recognize that their nonexistence would
be a loss to themselves as well as to others.7 Most of the time we conclude
that it would be best to deal with suffering by preventing it or ameliorat-
ing it. (Benatar recognizes this point at least once when he writes, “I have
argued that our lives are very bad. There is no reason why we should not
try to make them less so” [210].)
Not “Better Never to Have Been”    101

Consider another way to illustrate the latter point—that we ought to

deal with potential harms by preventing them, not by preventing the ex-
istence of people who might or do suffer them. We can say correctly, “It
would be bad if the person who holds job X experiences sexual harass-
ment or racial bias.” In saying this, we mean, first, that it is bad for the
person who fills job X. We might also mean that it is bad for others who
work with the incumbent in job X. Knowing that it would be bad, how
do we deal with the situation? We ensure (as far as possible) that sexual
harassment and racial bias do not occur to the person who eventually
wins job X. We don’t deal with the situation by refusing to fill the position
or by abolishing the job altogether. That is, we do not decide to prevent
the potential suffering by not bringing “the person who holds job X” into
But Benatar’s theory, if accepted, would imply that we should never
bring into existence persons of any description. It would be bad if persons
who live in City Y suffer from poverty. Benatar’s theory would have us
ensure that City Y never gets built or at least that no citizens are born or
move there; in this way, we do not bring the persons who would live in
City Y into existence and run the risk of their being poverty stricken. It
would be bad if students who take Philosophy 204 go through the pain
of failing the course. So we never offer Philosophy 204 to students. Since
pain and suffering are possible in any role or position we might take on,
by parity of reasoning Benatar’s theory means that we should never cre-
ate any new roles or positions or at least never fill them. Any theory with
implications that broad is surely mistaken.
What Benatar advocates is fundamentally a small c conservative ap-
proach to existence. Imagine that each of us somehow had a choice about
coming into existence on this earth. In effect, Benatar’s advice to the
would-be earthling is, “You’re gonna get hurt, so don’t risk it.” “Of the
pain of an existing person, [Benatar’s judgment] says that the absence
of this pain would have been good even if this could only have been
achieved by the absence of the person who now suffers it” (31). An un-
dergraduate student at Queen’s University, Vishaal Patel, suggests the fol-
lowing analogy in a paper written for one of my courses: “Before you is a
person with a bag full of jellybeans. The jellybeans come in two flavours:
cherry-red, which you love; and black licorice, which you hate. . . . You
are unaware of the proportion and size of the jellybeans because the bag
102    Chapter 6

is opaque. The person gives you the following choice: you may reach for
a handful of jellybeans or not. If you choose to reach for the jellybeans,
you must eat them. Would you be better or worse off having chosen to
take a handful?” (2007, 4).
Patel suggests that each jellybean represents an experience, either
harmful or beneficial, and that taking the handful represents coming into
existence. Every handful will have at least one black jellybean in it, which
represents one’s death,8 and most likely many more, representing all the
various instances of suffering that we experience in a lifetime.
From Benatar’s point of view, we should never take a handful because
we will always be forced to eat at least one black one, which is bad, but if
we refuse to take a handful at all, we will avoid the black ones altogether.
Benatar’s advice to a putative jellybean eater would be, “Do not reach for
the jellybeans.”
I find Patel’s analogy helpful because it reveals that what Benatar pres-
ents is a highly risk-averse value system. Better to avoid jellybeans alto-
gether in order to dodge the black ones. But a high degree of risk aversion
is not the only plausible approach to human existence. Probably many
people would say that life’s handful of jellybeans is worthwhile provided
at least that there are enough red ones and that the black ones are not
too numerous or too big. My point here is that not only do many of us
in retrospect say we are glad to be in existence; in addition, if we notice
that Benatar’s highly risk-averse outlook is not incontrovertible, then we
might conclude that we would have chosen to come into existence our-
selves if that option had, per impossibile, been offered to us. Such obser-
vations count against the claim that it is better never to have been.
Of course, in reality we do not make the decision whether to come
into existence or not. Instead, others make that decision for us. It is risky.
The question whether one is justified in imposing the risks of existence
on other potential people is not the same as the question whether one
should take on those risks oneself; that is, it is distinct from the question
whether, for each of us, it is better never to have been. But surely Benatar
cannot say that it is unacceptable to commit another person to risking
any suffering at all (Davies 2008, 4). For one thing, adults commit their
minor children to risks of suffering all the time. They have to. Every time
a parent transports her child in a car, visits a park with the child, or signs
the child up for sports, the child will run the risk of suffering if something
Not “Better Never to Have Been”    103

Scenario A Scenario B
X exists X never exists

(1) (2)

Presence of pain Absence of pain

(Bad) (Good)

(3) (4)

Presence of pleasure Absence of pleasure

(Good) (Not Bad, at least sometimes)

Figure 6.2

goes wrong. It would be bizarre to take the view that parents are wrong
in presenting these opportunities to their children, for the correct assump-
tion is that the likelihood of benefits far outweighs the risk of harms.
Therefore, in re-creating the people who would have suffered in such
a way that they do not suffer very much, God would do far more good
than by simply not re-creating them at all. If the absence of bad things is
good, even without anyone to experience the absence, then the absence of
good things can sometimes be bad, even without anyone who is deprived.
Hence, in box 4 of Benatar’s grid we should change “not bad” to “bad, at
least sometimes,” as indicated in figure 6.2.

Criticism 2

My first criticism assumed, along with Benatar, that it is meaningful to

say that the absence or avoidance of bad things and the absence of good
things can have value, whether positive or negative, even in the absence of
anything that experiences the absence. I conceded Benatar’s assumption
that the absence of bad things is good, even without anyone to experience
the absence, and I sought to show that the absence of good things can be
bad, even without anyone who experiences the absence.
104    Chapter 6

But this assumption is open to challenge. Let us consider now the pos-
sibility that Benatar misuses our usual moral language. Perhaps evalu-
ative terms are inherently person referring—that is, they have meaning
only by reference, at least indirectly, to persons.9 If so, then it is neither
meaningful nor plausible to speak of the absence or avoidance of good
things or bad things as having value independent of entities to experience
the absence or avoidance.
In standard usage, the phrase “the avoidance of the bad” implies the
existence of a person, group, or institution that avoids the bad. Bad is
avoided when some person, group, or institution avoids the bad. So we
might say correctly that the avoidance of malaria is good. What we mean
is that the avoidance of malaria is good for existing people (if we are
talking historically, it was good for people who once existed, or if we are
discussing the future, it will be good for people who will exist).
In Benatar’s theory, the phrase “avoidance of the bad” cannot have
a grammatical object because in the context of nonexistence there is no
human subject, no individual (or group or institution, but Benatar is con-
cerned with individuals) who has avoided the bad. In the absence of indi-
viduals who might suffer malaria, however, the idea of the avoidance of
malaria is virtually empty. For example, Benatar might say, “The avoid-
ance of malaria on Mars is good,” but in so saying he has told us nothing
about malaria, nothing about Mars, and nothing about what is good on
Mars, for there are no persons (indeed, so far as we know, no sentient be-
ings at all) on that planet.
In the cases that Benatar discusses, there is no being that actually
“avoids” bad, and so his phrase “the avoidance of the bad by never ex-
isting is a real advantage” (14) is very odd indeed. For whom is it an
advantage? Not for the nonexistent. Something can be an advantage only
to those who exist—in the present, past, or future. As Benatar himself
acknowledges, “Those who never exist cannot be deprived [or benefited]”
(1). So if there is a genuine advantage, it can be an advantage only to
those who exist in the past, present, or future.
Consider now another of Benatar’s claims: “One harms somebody by
bringing him into existence if his existence is such that never existing
would have been preferable” (28). Preferable in this usage is an evaluative
term, and it is therefore what I call a “person-referring” term. Some thing
or condition cannot be “preferable” full stop. It has to be preferable by
Not “Better Never to Have Been”    105

or to someone or several persons or a group of persons past, present, or

future, real or hypothetical. If almost everyone does not prefer that they
did not come into existence, and if for almost every person there is at least
one other person and probably many who are glad they came into exis-
tence, there is no good sense in which it can be preferable that those per-
sons did not come into existence. We cannot say that hypothetical people
would prefer not to come into existence. We cannot consult people before
they exist to find out whether they would prefer to come into existence or
not come into existence. Hence, what it means to speak of the value of the
avoidance of bad and the absence of good is necessarily tied to persons
and does not have clear meaning on its own.
Now, Benatar says he makes the judgment that “the absence of pain
is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone” “with reference to
the (potential) interests of a person who either does or does not exist”
(30, emphasis in original removed). He recognizes that a critic might ar-
gue that because the judgment “is part of the scenario under which this
person never exists, [the judgment] cannot say anything about an ex-
isting person.” His response to this criticism is that the judgment does
“say something about a counterfactual case in which a person who does
actually exist never did exist.” “Of the pain of an existing person, [the
judgment] says that the absence of this pain would have been good even
if this could only have been achieved by the absence of the person who
now suffers it” (31).
This latter statement does nothing to advance Benatar’s argument but
merely restates it, for good in this situation is a person-referring term.
So now we can ask, Good for whom? There is no one for whom the
nonexistence of the person is good (unless, perhaps, the person has many
enemies). A mere absence or avoidance is neither good nor bad unless it
is good or bad for someone.
Benatar objects that if we cannot say that avoiding pains is good even
when it is not good for anybody, then “we could not say that it would be
good to avoid bringing suffering children into existence” (34). But reject-
ing as meaningless the claim that avoiding pains is good even when it is
not good for anybody does not have this implication. We can still say it is
good to avoid bringing suffering children into existence, the reason being
that it is good on the part of individuals who make the decision not to
bring suffering children into existence. In an article about Benatar’s book,
106    Chapter 6

Chris Kaposy suggests that Benatar’s supposed asymmetry between the

absence of bad and the absence of good appears plausible only because
he conflates the absence of bad with the prevention of bad: “The duties
and reactions that Benatar thinks are explained by the asymmetry (for
example the duty to refrain from bringing a profoundly suffering child
into the world) have more to do with the importance of avoiding being
the cause of suffering, rather than with the goodness of absent suffering”
(2009, 106). What is good is preventing bad and avoiding causing bad.
It is wrong to create or even to permit suffering if we can avoid it; hence,
it may be wrong to create individuals who will suffer. So it is correct to
say, with Benatar, “Avoiding the pains of existence is more than merely
‘not bad.’ It is good” (39), but we can meaningfully say it only when there
is some person or group of persons or institution that avoids causing a
painful existence.
In criticism 1, I showed that if one assumes that it is meaningful and
plausible to speak of the avoidance or absence of harm as bad, then, con-
trary to Benatar’s key assumption, the absence of good can also be bad;
it is not necessarily always “not bad,” as Benatar claims. In criticism 2,
however, I have called into question the idea that an absence can have any
value at all in the absence of any sentient being to experience the absence.
Hence, if we reject the initial assumption about the meaningfulness of as-
cribing values to absences, then both the absence of harm and the absence
of benefit are neither good nor bad when there is no one for whom they
are good or bad. On the basis of this criticism, then, we should change
box 4 from “not bad” to “neither good nor bad” and box 2 from “good”
to “neither good nor bad.” See figure 6.3.
Criticisms 1 and 2 are alternatives to each other; each is built on an
assumption that is the negation of the assumption that forms the basis for
the other. So whether it is meaningful or not to say that the absence or
avoidance of bad things and the absence of good things can have value in
the absence of anything that experiences the absence, Benatar’s theory is
flawed. In criticism 3, I move to a different problem with Benatar’s theory.

Criticism 3

Benatar treats coming into existence and not coming into existence as if
they were ordinary properties of persons, like having brown hair, being
Not “Better Never to Have Been”    107

Scenario A Scenario B
X exists X never exists

(1) (2)

Presence of pain Absence of pain

(Bad) (Neither Good nor Bad)

(3) (4)

Presence of pleasure Absence of pleasure

(Good) (Not Bad, Neither Good nor Bad)

Figure 6.3

good at sports, or lacking an arm.10 In twenty-first-century North Amer-

ica, having brown hair is a neutral property, being good at sports is an
advantageous property, and having no right arm is a disadvantageous
property. But it does not make sense to say that existing is a disadvanta-
geous property, any more than it would make sense to say that existing
is an advantageous property. Instead, existing is a necessary condition of
having or experiencing advantages or disadvantages. People are neither
benefited nor harmed by coming into existence per se and independent
of what happens to them during their lives because coming into existence
is not a property like other properties. Existence is a condition of having
any properties at all. Hence, whether being alive is a benefit or a harm
depends on the content of the life that is lived.
A would-be critic of Benatar’s argument might suggest that the fact
that most people are reasonably happy to be alive counts as evidence
against Benatar’s views. But Benatar deprecates what he calls “the unduly
rosy picture most people have about the quality of their own lives” (59)
and points out that “I am glad I was born” is not equivalent to “It is better
that I came into existence” (58).
108    Chapter 6

There’s something far-fetched about the idea that I and virtually ev-
eryone who says she or he is happy to be alive can be badly mistaken
about the quality of our lives, yet Benatar insists that it is so (64). He
cites psychological studies indicating that people usually remember posi-
tive rather than negative experiences and states, “We tend to have an
exaggerated view of how good things will be.” Moreover, “many studies
have consistently shown that self-assessments of well-being are markedly
skewed toward the positive end of the spectrum” (65). Indeed, says Bena-
tar, human beings may be “engaged in a mass self-deception about how
wonderful things are for us” (100).11 This belief seems oddly inconsistent
with his earlier distinction between asking whether a life is worth starting
and asking whether a life is worth continuing (22–28). The requirements
are much higher for judging that a life is not worth continuing than for
judging that a life is not worth starting. But if so, then at least some cre-
dence must be placed on the individual’s subjective experience that her
life is worth living.
It seems unlikely that the vast majority of us is guilty of false con-
sciousness. Benatar cannot possibly know this of every single human be-
ing who is happy to have been born. It is simply unfounded to deny the
experience of literally millions of people who for the most part enjoy
their lives and are happy to exist. Moreover, it is presumptuous for him
to suppose that he (along with the few who may agree with him) is the
only person who fully understands the human situation and has the ap-
propriate response to it. Far from suggesting that our lives are very bad,
people’s positive outlooks and self-assessments tend to make their lives
better. Research demonstrates that self-reported happiness is linked to
other factors that promote well-being: “Compared with those who are
depressed, happy people are less self-focused, less hostile and abusive, and
less vulnerable to disease. They are also more loving, forgiving, trusting,
energetic, decisive, creative, sociable, and helpful” (Myers 2000, 57–58).
If in the present I do not remember most of my negative experiences, my
life now is better than it would be if I did remember them. If I think that
the future will be good, even if I overestimate its goodness, that fact too
makes my current life more pleasant. And if I have a positive assessment
of my well-being, this surely means that in at least one important way, my
subjective self-assessment, I am doing well.12
Not “Better Never to Have Been”    109

Benatar concedes that “if one’s life is very bad . . . , and one thinks that
it is not, then in this one way it is actually better than it would be if one
realized how bad it actually was. But to say that it is better in this one way
is neither to say that it is better in every way, nor is it to say that it is so
much better that it is as good as one thinks it is” (87). Benatar is correct.
However, thinking that it is better than it is not only makes it better but
also may continue to make it better by generating an ongoing positive
All of Benatar’s psychological evidence in fact shows not that the qual-
ity of people’s lives is necessarily worse than we think, but rather that
people are happier than his theory allows. The point here is not, as he
accuses another scholar of believing, that there is no difference between
subjective and objective levels of well-being. Rather, the point is that the
subjective level counts, and it counts for a lot. It cannot simply be disre-
garded just because some people’s perceived well-being departs from their
actual well-being. The fact that most people worldwide are at least satis-
fied with and often very happy about their lives is significant. It seems very
implausible indeed to suppose that almost every one of them is mistaken.
Now it is true that the issue of whether people are happy or sad dur-
ing their lives is different from the issue of whether they are benefited
or harmed by being brought into existence. But Benatar recognizes this
fact only in part. He stresses that person X can be happy at certain times
without its being true that person X was benefited by being brought into
existence. But I want to suggest likewise that person Y can be unhappy at
certain times without its being true that Y was harmed by being brought
into existence.
Benatar correctly identifies at least some of the genuine harms gener-
ated by the fact that we exist. Foremost among these harms is the fact that
we all (apparently have to) die. I agree with Benatar that death is usually
harmful and that it can be a harm at whatever age it happens (Benatar
2004b, 161–162). The inevitability of death means that life must end. Yet
in other contexts we do not take the fact that something must end as a
reason never to begin it. We do not avoid holidays on the grounds that
we will have to go back to work. We do not eschew good movies because
they always come to an end. Even though, ceteris paribus, death is bad
and a long life is better than a short life, the fact of death is not sufficient
to make coming into existence a harm.
110    Chapter 6

If death is not sufficient, then what is? Is there any fact that is universal
to all lives that suffices to make coming into existence always harmful? At
the beginning of this chapter, I cited Shiffrin, who describes a number of
ways in which one’s life may be painful: “By being caused to exist as per-
sons, children are forced to assume moral agency, to face various demand-
ing and sometimes wrenching moral questions, and to discharge taxing
moral duties. They must endure the fairly substantial amount of pain,
suffering, difficulty, significant disappointment, distress, and significant
loss that occur within the typical life. They must face and undergo the fear
and harm of death. Finally, they must bear the results of imposed risks
that their lives may go terribly wrong in a variety of ways” (1999, 137).
I agree that if these experiences are severe and especially if they are
unremitting and unrelieved by any happiness, then coming into existence
might be a harm. But not for all of us: pain, suffering, difficulty, disap-
pointment, distress, and loss vary in their severity from one person to
another. Yet in what starts to seem like a rather desperate attempt to
show how bad our lives are, even for those with a prosperous existence,
Benatar describes experiences such as the sensation of a full bladder (71),
the feeling of being tired (72), and even the mere having of desires (75)
as bad. But these experiences and others like them are not epistemic giv-
ens, not incorrigible sense data. As I suggested in chapter 1, feelings and
sensations do not wear their meanings and values on their faces but are
always subject to interpretation and therefore can have varying valences.
So, for example, the sensation of a full bladder can be merely neutral, giv-
ing the signal to urinate. Feeling tired can be pleasurable, not necessarily
painful, perhaps after a day of fulfilling work or a long hike. Even the
pain of childbirth, although sometimes excruciating, can be interpreted
as the powerful working of the woman’s body to impel the infant into
the world.
And, contra Benatar, having desires is not only not necessarily painful
but is possibly a condition of being human, giving us always something to
aim toward and look forward to.13 We can see this if we try to imagine a
life without desires at all. It is hard to see how we would even be persons
in the absence of any desires (Horrobin 2007). If alternatively we imagine
a life in which, to supposedly minimize suffering, we have desires, but
they are fulfilled within minutes, such a life seems virtually emptied of
meaning. Hence, having desires is hardly the inevitable harm that Benatar
Not “Better Never to Have Been”    111

claims it is. In general and perhaps for most people, Benatar greatly exag-
gerates the suffering of human existence.
Maybe the problem is that Benatar’s calculus of pain and pleasure is
mistaken. Matthew Kersten points out that, according to Benatar, it is
simply a fact that no amount of pleasure outweighs the suffering of our
existence.14 Now, even if that claim were true, it would be a merely con-
tingent fact about our existence. It would therefore be open to us, as hu-
man beings, to attempt to improve our lives and our living conditions so
that in the future the pleasure might outweigh the suffering. But in any
case it seems just false that there is no human being for whom the plea-
sure of life already genuinely outweighs the suffering.
Perhaps, then, Benatar’s belief that no amount of pleasure can ever out-
weigh the suffering of existence is an a priori assumption, an assumption
independent of the facts that arises from the very concepts of pleasure and
pain that he holds.
To see this, imagine World 1, in which two people, Jack and Jill, exist.15
Jack experiences a great deal of pain in his life (very bad) and only a little
bit of pleasure (good, but not very good). Jill, by contrast, experiences
only minimal pain (bad, but not very bad) and a tremendous amount
of pleasure (very good). In World 2, neither Jack nor Jill exists, and the
absence of their pain is good, whereas the absence of their pleasure is not
bad. (Here, I am accepting for the sake of argument Benatar’s views about
the value of the absence of pain and the absence of pleasure). According
to Benatar, World 2 is always and clearly better not only for Jack but also
for Jill because it is always “better never to have been.” But surely we can
concede that nonexistence is better for Jack without conceding that it is
better for Jill; in World 1, Jill’s pleasure does outweigh her suffering. And
so in Jill’s case we are making the comparison shown in figure 6.4.
For Jill, World 2 merely offers “good” and “not bad.” But World 1
offers her “not too bad” and “very good.” Hence, World 1, in which she
exists, is still better for her, and it is not better that she never exist.
Of course, not every life will be like Jill’s. But some will. And Jill’s
life shows that at least sometimes it is not better never to have been. If
Benatar denies this latter possibility, it must be because he has an odd
view of bad or of good or perhaps of both. Perhaps his view is that any
bad whatsoever, no matter how little, can always outweigh any good, no
matter how much, that may be present. But if so, that assumption is surely
112    Chapter 6

World 1 World 2
Jill exists Jill never exists

(1) (2)

Presence of a bit of pain Absence of pain

(Bad, but Not Too Bad) (Good)

(3) (4)

Presence of much pleasure Absence of pleasure

(Very Good) (Not Bad)

Figure 6.4

false. We often undergo certain kinds of pain (bad) precisely because of

the greater happiness (good) that we will thereby gain. As Kersten puts
it, there are goods that “not only undo pains but in fact compensate for
them” (personal communication, November 16, 2009, his emphasis).
This process is evident whenever we human beings expend great physical,
psychological, or intellectual effort, sometimes to the point of suffering,
in order to attain an outcome that we strongly value—an athletic achieve-
ment, for example, or a spiritual insight, moral growth, creative product,
or scientific or philosophical finding. The fact that the process was un-
comfortable or even painful, perhaps very painful, does not in any way
cancel out the good of what we have achieved. Most of us would not say
it would be better that we had not existed, despite whatever suffering and
pain as well as the joys, pleasures, and rewards our lives have included.
Instead, most of us would say that the joys, pleasures, and rewards (and
perhaps also the challenges) compensate for the suffering and pain and
make us glad to be alive.
Perhaps, however, Benatar has an odd view of good—the view that
good is merely the absence of or the recovery from bad. We can see this
view in an example that Benatar himself uses elsewhere (Benatar 2004b,
Not “Better Never to Have Been”    113

160). Person A gets sick (bad) but has the power to recover quickly (good).
Person B never gets sick (good) but lacks the power to recover quickly
(not bad). Person A is supposed to be like all of us in that we exist; Person
B represents nonexistence. But the analogy fails. The ability to recover
quickly is merely a kind of antidote to being ill. But pleasure is more than
just a recovery from suffering or the absence of suffering. Pleasure is a real
experience in its own right, and because it can vary in quantity and quality,
its presence in our lives is capable not merely of counteracting our suffer-
ing, but even, with sufficient quantity and quality, of outweighing it. For
example, for many and perhaps most women, giving birth to a baby is not
merely a kind of antidote to or recovery from the difficulties of pregnancy
and labor. The baby is a joy, perhaps an unquantifiable joy, but nonethe-
less a positive and valuable good in itself, who more than outweighs the
pain and problems of pregnancy and labor. (If it were not so, then almost
no women with access to contraception would ever have a second child.)
Thus, it is only if Benatar makes an implausible assumption about
good, about bad, or about both that his calculus of good and bad can
support his conclusion. He is not justified in assuming either that pain
always outweighs pleasure or that pleasure is merely the recovery from
or the absence of pain.

Criticism 4

My final criticism is not intended to show that Benatar’s theory is mis-

taken; I assume that the previous three criticisms have done that. I intend
here to show the possible negative effects on and implications for women
in particular if Benatar’s theory is accepted and widely adopted.
To begin, recall that I opened chapter 5 with the observation that
in general we think making people happy is a good thing; so why then
should we not recognize an obligation to make happy people? Benatar
thinks his supposed asymmetry between the absence of bad and the ab-
sence of good explains the common view “that while there is a duty to
avoid bringing suffering people into existence, there is no duty to bring
happy people into being” (32).16
Benatar is right to believe that this view is common (at least among
those who actually think about their procreative potential) and that it
is likely correct. However, as I explained at length in chapter 5, we can
114    Chapter 6

account for the absence of any duty to bring happy people into being
quite easily by reference to the importance of women’s bodily autonomy
and the moral necessity of respect for women’s well-being and reproduc-
tive rights; we don’t need Benatar’s dubious asymmetry to explain it. That
is, women are entitled to control their bodies and protect their own well-
being, and that right militates against any supposed duty to reproduce,
even if happy people would be the result.
Now, Benatar momentarily appears to recognize some of these points.
He writes, “It is usually thought that our positive duties cannot include
a duty to create lots of people if that would require significant sacrifice
on our part. Given that having children involves considerable sacrifice
(at least to the pregnant woman), this, and not asymmetry, is the best ex-
planation for why there is no duty to bring happy people into existence”
(32–33). According to Benatar, however, the weakness of this protofemi-
nist response is that it implies that “in the absence of this sacrifice we
would have a duty to bring happy people into existence. In other words,
it would be wrong not to create such people if we could create them with-
out great cost to ourselves” (33, his emphasis).
There are several things wrong with this counterargument. First, who
are “we”? It seems unlikely that he means women because there is no
indication that he counts himself among the group of people who are ca-
pable of pregnancy. So the “we” must be men or society at large. Benatar
is claiming that women’s right not to reproduce has a rather precarious
status. The implication seems to be that if we do not assume that the ab-
sence of good is not bad, and if women found pregnancy relatively easy,
then individual men or perhaps society might have at least a moral duty
to require women, whether willing or not, to procreate for the purpose of
creating happy people.
But even a pregnancy in which the woman is vitally healthy is not
something she has no right to refuse. I’m reminded of Judith Jarvis Thom-
son’s thought experiments in her classic article about abortion. Thomson
imagines a situation in which “pregnancy lasted only an hour, and consti-
tuted no threat to life or health.” Nonetheless, she says, although in such
a case it might be “morally indecent” to abort the pregnancy, it is not the
case that the fetus acquires a right to the use of the woman’s body (1975,
100, 102). Nor, I suggest, does the woman lose the entitlement to choose
not to undergo the pregnancy in the first place; it is, after all, her body
and nobody else’s.
Not “Better Never to Have Been”    115

Second, can it ever really be the case that procreation requires no sacri-
fice or cost? In reality, pregnancy lasts about nine months and is followed
by a delivery that is seldom a breeze. And that is not all. Someone must
feed the children who are born; someone must care for them and sup-
port their development; someone must provide the resources to maintain
them; someone must provide their education, health care, and housing.
For these reasons, procreation is never undemanding and low cost. It al-
ways requires effort, caring, concern, material resources, and intelligent
thought and planning. Procreation is never a no-sacrifice process.
In other words, even if, as I am urging in this chapter, Benatar’s asym-
metry thesis is mistaken, there would still be no moral duty to make
babies. Even if pregnancy and birth were easy for all women (a highly
unlikely scenario), many other costs are incurred by procreation, costs
that often fall primarily on women but may also be incurred by men and
by society generally. As a result, an appeal to the right not to reproduce,
founded as it is on protecting women’s (and men’s) reproductive freedom
and protecting women’s (and men’s) well-being, is a more than adequate
alternative to Benatar’s dubious asymmetry hypothesis as a bulwark
against a moral obligation to procreate.
In general, Benatar is surprisingly oblivious to the implications of his
theory for women’s rights and well-being.17 Most of his discussion of pro-
creation is curiously gender neutral.18 At the same time, his theory implies
that women’s reproductive labor produces bad consequences.19 That is,
the idea that it is better in every case never to have been implies that wom-
en’s reproductive labor in pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and even rear-
ing children contributes to the accumulation of net harm on this planet.
It’s unlikely that downgrading procreation in this way would do much
for the status of women, particularly in societies where women’s status
is dependent primarily on their role as childbearers. If Benatar’s theory
were to gain credence (unlikely though that may be), then one of women’s
primary social contributions, recognized even (or especially) in the most
misogynist societies, would be seen as a liability. Might this view lead to
an increase in the infanticide of girls or to assaults on pregnant women?
If these outcomes seem unlikely, then notice that the theory can be inter-
preted to mean that both contraception and abortion should be mandato-
ry. Benatar himself imagines a society aimed at ensuring nonprocreation.
He suggests the administration of a “safe, highly effective contraceptive”
116    Chapter 6

via drinking water or “aerial spray” without the population’s knowledge

or individual people’s consent. He describes this approach as “unobtru-
sive and gentle” because it avoids “invasions of privacy and bodily in-
trusions.” He acknowledges that such measures would violate personal
autonomy, but he never recognizes the serious costs for women (as well
as men) of compulsory contraception (107).


I have shown that David Benatar is deeply mistaken in claiming that

“it is better never to have been.” My approach has not been to offer
evidence that it is better to exist. It isn’t always. Instead, I have offered
three criticisms showing that the theory is false and one criticism show-
ing that its adoption would be dangerous, especially to women. People
are not harmed by the mere fact of coming into existence, but, I suggest,
people are not benefited either. Mere existence is not a benefit-conferring
or harm-conferring property. Prior to conception, there is no being who
can be benefited or harmed by coming into existence. We can see, how-
ever, that in many and perhaps most cases individuals, once in existence,
do have good lives and are glad to exist. Hence, we must always “look
and see” whether persons are benefited or harmed throughout their lives.
Whether they are benefited or harmed depends on a host of factors, in-
cluding the material circumstances of their lives, their health, their happi-
ness and suffering, their education, their opportunities, and their possible
experiences of oppression.
Even if Benatar were right that the absence of pain is good and the
absence of pleasure is not bad, it would not follow that it is better not
to exist. Whether it is better not to exist would then depend on how we
add up the goods and bads—that is, whether the good constituted by the
absence of pain in the case of nonexistence is greater than the good that
might be created if the individual were to live her life. It is not self-evident
that in every case nonexistence is better.
Hence, Benatar’s thesis that it is better never to have been does not
generate a moral reason not to procreate. At the same time, as I argued in
chapter 5, even if someone will be benefited by having a good life, there
is no obligation to any such hypothetical nonexistent person to bring him
or her into existence.
An Obligation Not to Procreate?

If David Benatar were correct that for every single person it is better never
to come into existence, then there would be a strong reason for believ-
ing that we always have an obligation not to procreate. I have shown
that Benatar’s theory does not stand up against a variety of criticisms.
Nonetheless, other important moral reasons may count against having
children. In investigating these reasons, I consider whether and when a
case can be made that there is an obligation not to have children.
James Lenman writes, “We might well believe that in every generation
very many people will lead lives of at best highly compromised happiness
and some people will lead quite terrible lives. Nonetheless our interest
in having children is such that we may find the risk acceptable” (2004b,
147). The question is whether we are morally justified in finding that
risk “acceptable” and to whom it ought to be acceptable. It’s not clear
whether Lenman’s “we” means—or should mean—individual prospec-
tive parents, society at large, or even the children themselves. Perhaps no
one should blithely endorse creating serious risks that others will have
to run.
It might be thought that my defense of the right to reproduce in the
negative sense—that is, the entitlement not to be interfered with in re-
production—means there cannot be an obligation not to procreate. But
that would be a mistake. We sometimes have a moral responsibility not
to exercise a right. For example, the right to free speech does not give us
a moral entitlement to say whatever we want whenever we want, for we
sometimes have a moral obligation to keep our mouths shut. If I have
promised to honor a secret you have told me, my right to free speech does
not obliterate my moral obligation not to gossip about you. Similarly,
although we have a right not to be interfered with in procreation—not
118    Chapter 7

to have others intervene in our sexual lives, not to be coerced to use con-
traception, not to be compelled to undergo forced sterilization or abor-
tion—it does not follow that all our decisions to procreate are necessarily
morally justified. It is possible that sometimes at least it is morally wrong
to procreate, and we may sometimes have an obligation not to.
Before examining the various reasons that might be given to support
an obligation not to procreate, let’s consider what such an obligation
would and would not mean in practice. In speaking of a possible obliga-
tion not to have children, I am saying nothing about what the state should
or should not do to curtail procreation. That is a matter of social policy,
which I am setting aside in this book. Instead, what I’m interested in here
is the possibility of a moral responsibility to limit one’s own reproductive
activities and outcomes. If there is ever an obligation not to procreate, it is
plausible to suppose that it would mean in practice a moral responsibility
to use safe and highly effective contraception when engaged in activities
with a chance of resulting in pregnancy. It might also mean a responsibil-
ity on a woman’s part to obtain an abortion if she becomes pregnant.
But it is less plausible to say that an obligation not to procreate requires
behavior so onerous as to make one’s life miserable. For example, because
almost all people enjoy sexual activity, and because sexuality is a crucial
aspect of a good human life for most people, it seems unjust to say that an
individual’s obligation not to procreate might mean in practice a blanket
prohibition on (hetero)sexual activity for all the years that the individual
is fertile. For the most part, people (of whatever sexual identity) cannot
be expected to give up sex. But there are, of course, many ways of being
sexually active, and some run no risk of pregnancy. Thus, if no effective
and safe methods of contraception were available, then an individual who
has an obligation not procreate would be morally required to avoid het-
erosexual activities likely to result in pregnancy. In addition, it may be too
much to say that an obligation not to procreate requires sterilization at
the beginning of one’s reproductive life. Giving up one’s fertility forever
is too high a cost, unless the harms to the children who would otherwise
be created are so horrific as to make their lives not worth living, the risks
of such harms are extremely high, and the risks will never disappear over
the course of the individual’s lifetime. There are, then, some limits to the
behavior we can reasonably expect people to undertake in order to honor
an obligation not to procreate.
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    119

But what circumstances or conditions might possibly generate a moral

obligation not to have a child? To begin exploring the answers to this
question, I want to introduce two distinctions.
First, just as there can be bad reasons to choose to have a child, so also
there can be bad reasons for thinking one should not have a child. The
fact that choosing to have a child may at times be the right decision does
not make all possible reasons for choosing to have a child good ones. In
a similar way, the fact that choosing not to have a child may at times be
the right decision does not make all possible reasons for choosing not to
have a child good ones. Not all reasons for choosing not to have children
are morally equal. For example, perhaps a person chooses not to have
children simply because she wants to spite her parents, who desperately
want grandchildren. Her reasoning is not morally admirable. In addition,
to say, as I did in chapter 1, that choosing not to have children is easier
to justify than choosing to have children is not to deny that some reasons
for choosing not to have a particular child might be morally dubious. An
example would be aborting a fetus because the fetus has been tested and
shown to lack, let’s say, the genes for blond hair or blue eyes. The woman
who wants an abortion for those reasons should not be denied the service
because she should not be compelled to undergo pregnancy against her
will; forced procreation is a great evil. Nonetheless, her justification for
the abortion is less than morally impressive.
Second, we should distinguish between a general, life-long obligation
not to procreate and an obligation not to procreate at a particular time
in one’s life or with a particular person. It is possible that some people
might have a lifelong moral obligation not to procreate, whereas others
might have such an obligation at one point in their lives and not at others
or in some particular circumstances and not in others or with a particular
partner but not with others.
Having made these distinctions, I now turn to the examination of a
series of possible reasons that have been offered to justify an obligation
not to have children.

Might There Be a Moral Responsibility to Oneself Not to Have Children?

As long ago as 1916, sociologist Leta Hollingworth described childbear-

ing as “in many respects analogous to the work of soldiers: it is necessary
120    Chapter 7

for tribal or national existence; it means great sacrifice of personal ad-

vantage; it involves danger and suffering, and, in a certain percentage of
cases, the actual loss of life” (1916, 19). For women in developed nations,
the risk of death in childbirth has diminished, yet the choice whether to
procreate or not remains life changing for women.
Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone famously argued that “the heart
of woman’s oppression is her childbearing and childrearing roles,” and she
believed that this oppression is inevitable because “the sexual imbalance
is biologically based” (1970, 72, 9). Hence, women will be freed from the
oppression of motherhood only if the child-rearing role is spread over all
adults of both sexes and technology is used to free women “from the tyr-
anny of their reproductive biology by every means available” (1970, 206).
But to see, like Firestone, women’s biology as inherently oppressive is
to engage in a form of misogyny. Other feminist philosophers and theo-
rists do not subscribe to this rather simplistic biological reductionism;
they recognize that in some contexts women’s capacity to create new life
is a strength, an advantage men do not possess. They endorse the idea that
motherhood can be oppressive but believe that its oppressive character-
istics are culturally produced. What is problematic about motherhood is
not the biological capacities themselves, but the social interpretation of
the meaning of motherhood and the conditions under which women en-
gage in mothering. Thus, Claudia Card claims that motherhood is still “so
deeply flawed that [it seems] to me unworthy of emulation and reproduc-
tion” (1996, 2). Jeffner Allen agrees. In her view, motherhood is “danger-
ous to women” “because it denies to females the creation of a subjectivity
and world that is open and free.” Motherhood is “men’s appropriation of
women’s bodies as a resource to reproduce patriarchy.” Allen advocates
“evacuation” from motherhood by deciding not to have children, thereby
giving priority “to that which is already given, [one’s own] life and [one’s
own] world in their actual presence to [oneself]” (1983, 315, 317, 326,
French writer Corinne Maier (2007) has more recently published an
uncompromising polemic, directed at men as well as women, advocat-
ing that one should choose not to procreate and offering forty reasons
in support of her recommendation, some of which pertain to the alleged
bad effects of parenthood on parents themselves. I won’t list here every
one of her reasons individually. Some of them are criticisms of the culture
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    121

of childhood, not of the experience of having children—for example, the

expectation that children must be perfect (2007, 111–114). Some reasons
are simply repetitive and can be grouped together.
First, procreation is physically unpleasant for women because “labour
is torture” (Maier 2007, 20; subsequent citations to this work give page
numbers only), and “breastfeeding is slavery” (24).
Second, the child comes to be “the focal point of the family” (44); the
parents become the pawns of experts (71) and the toadies and victims of
their children’s schools (91–95).
Third, children themselves are detestable. Writes Maier: “Children are
like dogs: if they were two or three times bigger, they would be ferocious
beasts, your very worst enemies” (45). Children are “conformists” (47);
indeed, “childhood is a long neurosis” (48). Children use (and require
their parents to use) “idiot language” (32). Children must also be enter-
tained (54–57).
Fourth, children are an economic liability. “Children cost a fortune.
They are among the most expensive purchases the average consumer can
make in a lifetime. In monetary terms alone, they cost more than a high-
end luxury car, or a world cruise, or a two-room apartment in Paris. Even
worse, the cost goes up as time goes by” (49). And children are dedicated
consumers (51–54) who have a powerful influence even on adults’ tastes
Fifth, having children ruins the parents’ adult lives. The parents no
longer have fun (24), and “kids signal the end of your youthful dreams”
(84–88). “Life with kids is trivialized,” and “your kid will be your ankle
shackles” (26). Parents can’t express their real feelings ( 99–104). Because
of their children, parents experience “death by boredom” (88), but at the
same time it’s very difficult to obtain childcare and other activities for
children (89–90). Having children means parents lose their friends (28),
and the family wins out over other social relationships (82). Children
cause the loss of a sex life (37, 41) and the loss of “lust” (39) and bring
about “the death knell of the couple” (41). Your children may even take
you into conflict with the law by complaining that you sexually abused
them (114–117).
Sixth, parenthood is especially bad for women: “For all mothers’ mul-
tidimensional flexibility, it’s astonishing how little market value they
have. Have you ever seen a company going out of its way to hire mothers
122    Chapter 7

who are more than forty-five years old?” (51). The mother becomes a
“merdeuf” (65), a woman consumed by motherhood and incapable of
anything else, yet also a person who feels guilty about failing to live up
to the ideal of motherhood ( 69). The work of child rearing still falls on
women (105), and mothers are excluded from interesting work and pro-
fessional advancement (106–108).
Finally, parents do not try to change the world; they are too busy
changing diapers (87).
All of these authors—from Hollingworth right up to Maier—make
bold and disturbing claims about parenthood, especially about mother-
hood. If you perceive parenthood to be this bad, this dangerous, this com-
promising of the self, then regardless of the truth of these various claims,
you do have a responsibility not to procreate because your perception
of parenthood does not bode well for the quality of your parenting. You
are likely to loathe child rearing and to be, at the very best, ambivalent
about your children. But to attribute such a responsibility may be otiose
because choosing to have children is unlikely to be a live option for you
The question is whether these arguments create an objective case for
a responsibility to oneself not to reproduce, whether parenthood is so
bad—not just seems to be bad—that no one should have children.
The evaluation of some aspects of parenthood may simply be a mat-
ter of individual preference. For example, some women (and I include
myself) deeply enjoy the breastfeeding relationship with their infant and,
contrary to Maier, do not find it “slavery” at all; indeed, it can be far less
restrictive and more satisfying than bottle feeding. No doubt some people
find parts of child rearing boring. Yet many aspects can be both satisfying
and fun—rediscovering with one’s children the poems, books, songs, and
films from one’s own childhood and discovering new ones; taking one’s
children to parks, pools, museums, libraries, and playgrounds; talking
with one’s children; playing games and sports with one’s children; helping
one’s children develop their abilities, interests, and skills; and so on.
There is little doubt that parenthood can be hard even in the best of
circumstances. Being a parent does require making sacrifices. Moreover,
in Western society children are expensive, and both childhood and par-
enting are easily co-opted in capitalist societies to facilitate and extend
retail consumption. Maier, however, arguably overstates the difficulties,
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    123

expenses, and sacrifices. She writes as if it is unreasonable for any adult

to be anything but carefree at all points in his or her life. Indeed, Maier’s
irresponsible outlook is reflected in the final chapter of her book, where
she concludes, “I would prefer . . . not to have children. Not to work”
(125, ellipsis in original, my emphasis). If that is her goal, she needs to be
independently wealthy as well as childless.
Many of Maier’s arguments about the alleged bad effects of parenting
on parents themselves amount to little more than vicious child hating
and include statements about an entire category of human being that she
would never dare to utter about members of more protected categories
such as adult men. Children are no more essentially “ferocious beasts”
than men are. Insofar as some children are difficult and unruly, much of
the blame must be laid either on the parents themselves, who have failed
to teach these children how to become what Sarah Ruddick calls “ac-
ceptable” persons (1993, 373–375), or on the social conditions in which
many children grow up (poor nutrition, shelter, education, and health
care; racism; sexual and physical abuse; poverty; war; and so on), which
may make them aggressive, uncooperative, and antisocial. Maier herself
admits that children can be conformists; to the degree that they cause
problems, they may well be imitating the models they find in their envi-
ronment or at least reflecting the absence of good role models.
The far more serious argument is what Maier and Allen say about
the political effects of parenthood, especially on women. Unlike them, I
will not generalize about all of motherhood; the causes, conditions, and
consequences of being a parent are much too variable. Yet women still do
the bulk of the reproductive labor from the moment of conception and
are responsible for the majority of child rearing; most women still earn
less than men; many women still sacrifice jobs and personal development
to be with their kids; their reward is often to receive less respect than if
they had devoted all their time to being successful in paid work. Many
women are made vulnerable to abuse when they are pregnant or caring
for small children; many women are seen as lesser beings because they
are mothers; many women are valued for little more than their sexuality
and their capacity to procreate. In such conditions, refusing to procreate
may be seen as a political act. Sue Donaldson writes, “My decision to
forgo children is an act of rebellion—a rebellion against the social pres-
sures to procreate and the stereotypes that say giving birth, and caring for
124    Chapter 7

dependents, [are] a defining feature of womanhood; against the current

societal environment in which we are expected to raise children; against
the view that forgoing an experience somehow diminishes one’s life; and
finally, against the view that we should happily embrace our biological
destiny” (2000, 8–9).
A woman may indeed have a responsibility to herself not to procreate
in contexts where motherhood can be negotiated only under oppressive,
burdensome, dangerous, and unjust conditions. Such conditions may not
even permit free procreative decisions. To the extent that people do have a
choice, they have a responsibility to resist the entrenchment of their own
oppression. In conditions of oppression, then, unless there are very strong
reasons to procreate, reasons that do not further undermine the woman’s
dignity, freedom, and capacity to flourish, women may have a responsibil-
ity to themselves not to procreate.
I do not believe that every mother is tyrannized as a mother; such
a view sees mothers only as victims, the dupes of patriarchy. But some
are. The question, then, would be whether there are other reasons for
procreating that in an oppressive environment override the prima facie
obligation not to. To suppose that there is none is to imagine that every
such mother is guilty of false consciousness, failing to recognize and resist
the conditions of her own oppression. Instead, I believe that for some and
perhaps many women, mothering is a decision not to deepen their oppres-
sion but to enrich their lives. For some women, having a child might be
one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary life.

Might There Be a Responsibility Not to Have Children Because One

Cannot Achieve “Procreative Beneficence”?

Most parents would say it is the offspring themselves who put the lie to
the idea that motherhood is nothing but oppressive and self-compromis-
ing. But even though the children in themselves are sufficient for many
women to undermine across-the-board criticisms of motherhood, chil-
dren’s very personhood nonetheless requires that we consider their well-
being. Perhaps in some cases a concern for the potential child’s well-being
grounds an obligation not to have children.
According to philosopher Julian Savulescu, human beings who pro-
create should adhere to a moral “Principle of Procreative Beneficence”
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    125

(PPB) (2001, 2007). This principle is “the moral obligation to have the
best children”: “Couples (or single reproducers) should select the child,
of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best
life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, avail-
able information,” says Savulescu (2001, 415). In effect, if you procreate,
then you must produce the best available child. It is “morally required”
(2001, 425).
Savulescu’s aim is to place a particular moral requirement on procre-
ation. In another paper, Savulescu and Guy Kahane claim that the PPB
is “neutral on the question of what reasons we have to have children”
(2009, 275, fn. 3, their emphasis). Savulescu simply argues that if one is
going to reproduce, one should create the best possible child, according
to his concept of best, which involves selecting from among the possible
children one might have the one who can be expected to have the best life.
If one fails to make this selection of the best, one is then presumably
doing something wrong. Hence, we might interpret the inability or un-
willingness to abide by the PPB as providing the basis for an obligation
not to procreate. If achieving procreative beneficence is a necessary condi-
tion for justifying procreation, then if you cannot or will not adhere to it,
you ought not to procreate.
To decide whether the failure to achieve procreative beneficence plau-
sibly creates an obligation not to procreate, it is necessary to evaluate the
principle itself. Some philosophers are critical of the PPB (e.g., Parker
20072), but their criticisms fail to take much notice of the effects on wom-
en of following the principle other than to express some concerns about
women’s reproductive autonomy or liberty. But the principle does have
additional worrying implications for women, and they are the basis for
my criticisms of it.
In his discussions of the PPB, Savulescu shockingly does not even refer
to women; he writes almost exclusively of “couples” and occasionally
of “single reproducers.” But the PPB, if adopted, would weigh far more
heavily on women than on men, for, as Savulescu points out, achieving
procreative beneficence in his sense necessitates the use of preimplanta-
tion genetic diagnosis after IVF.3 His ideal is that every potential mother
would be required to undergo this process: “Procreative Beneficence im-
plies couples should employ genetic tests for non-disease traits in selecting
which child to bring into existence and that we should allow selection for
126    Chapter 7

non-disease genes in some cases even if this maintains or increases social

inequality” (2001, 415). Who are “we”? Savulescu never tells us. Savules-
cu and Kahane say that the “[P]PB instructs women to seriously consider
IVF if natural reproduction is likely to lead to a child with a condition
that is expected to reduce well-being significantly, even if that condition
is not a disease” (2009, 281, my emphasis). Possible nondisease traits
that might be deliberately selected against include clinical depression,
autism, “negative affect,” Asperger’s syndrome, “cognitive and physical
abilities, personality traits, propensity to addiction, sexual orientation,
etc.” (Savulescu and Kahane 2009, 276). Once couples have decided to
use IVF, “PGD has few ‘costs’ to couples (Savulescu 2001, 413). He also
claims that IVF and PGD have “fewer psychological sequelae” than pre-
natal testing followed by abortion (Savulescu 2001, 416). He provides no
empirical evidence for these claims.
Although Savulescu and Kahane assert that the PPB is compatible with
several moral theories (2009, 277), it is an expression of utilitarianism.
As I suggested in chapter 5, we seldom have a moral requirement to con-
form to the principle of utility because maximizing good is supereroga-
tory, not morally required; it places unacceptable demands on individuals
and would lead to self-stultifying perfectionism, the inability to complete
tasks, or martyrdom and running oneself ragged. A requirement to maxi-
mize good would be ineffective and demoralizing; it would make morally
justified behavior unachievable and create moral failures out of us all.4
In the particular case of the PPB, it is simply unreasonable to require
that all women who want to have a child should use IVF to maximize
(supposedly) the well-being of their future offspring. IVF is extremely
expensive;5 in many jurisdictions, it is available only to the wealthy. IVF
also requires the use of drugs to stimulate the production of multiple
ova, following which the ova are removed from the woman’s body, fertil-
ized, and inserted into her uterus. This process is far more complex and
potentially harmful than sexual intercourse or even simple insemination.
Women who abide by the PPB would be engaging in a massive medical
experiment on their own bodies and those of their prospective children.
In addition, the chances of success are low, particularly when IVF is used
for women with infertility problems; they are likely to be better if used
by women without such problems, but IVF is unlikely to come close to
the success rates for ordinary heterosexual intercourse. Because fertility
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    127

declines with age, older women who want to follow the principle will
have to undergo multiple IVF attempts before succeeding—if they ever
In addition, if multiple embryos are transferred to the woman’s uterus,
perhaps to increase the possibility of success, the chances of multiples
(twins, triplets, quadruplets, etc.) are high. The gestation of multiples is
dangerous both for the woman and for the infants. For the woman, the
risks include “hypertensive disorders, thromboembolism, premature labor
and delivery, urinary tract infection, anemia and vaginal-uterine hemor-
rhage (placental abruption, placenta previa), fluid overload and pulmo-
nary edema in association with parenteral tocolysis [inhibition of labor].
Women with multiple pregnancies [i.e., pregnant with multiple fetuses]
are at increased risk of requiring long periods of bed rest, hospitalization,
administration of medication to prevent preterm labor and increased risk
of surgical procedures (Cesarean section, cerclage)” (Wennerholm 2004,
26). Moreover, “risks to the fetus[es] increase several-fold in multiple preg-
nancies. . . . [P]reterm birth and very preterm birth are the major cause
of neonatal mortality and morbidity. Even if the children are healthy, the
consequences for the family are severe; among them, long-term stress and
depression are well-documented, especially in the case of raising triplets”
(Wennerholm 2004, 23). Thus, acting on procreative beneficence turns
out not to be beneficent at all, either for prospective mothers or for their
future children.6
Now, Savulescu might say in response to this objection that if none
of these costs were incurred in order to choose the best embryo, then
we would have to adhere to the PPB. Indeed, he and Kahane state that
the PPB’s strength can be most clearly seen “when there are no opposing
reasons” (2009, 281). But there are almost never “no opposing reasons”
when we undertake a morally complex human project involving human
bodies. In another paper, Savulescu concedes that the interests of “parents
or reproducers” are also reasons for action and that “couples should not
undergo IVF and its risks if the harms are significant and the additional
benefits small” (2007, 286). However, it is inaccurate to say that couples
undergo the risks of IVF; it is women who go through it. And it is impos-
sible even to imagine a viable way of producing and then choosing among
possible embryos that does not involve time, technology, expense, medical
expertise, and serious interventions into women’s bodies.
128    Chapter 7

Nevertheless, if per impossibile there were a magic way of selecting

embryos (and magic seems to be what it would take)—if, that is, embryo
selection were to cost a woman little or nothing (in terms of money, time,
bodily invasion, uncertainty, anxiety, low success rate, and the dangers of
pregnancy with HOMs)—then the objection about the immediate costs
to women would disappear. But the PPB would not thereby be vindicated.
After all, women might still want to conceive through ordinary sexual
intercourse. For many women and men, there is a special significance to
conceiving a much-wanted child by making love; it is a significant part
of their relationship and their first steps to parenthood. Using another
method would be a heavy price to pay.
Perhaps Savulescu would reject such delicacy of feeling. But there is
still another reason to criticize the PPB. Recall that, according to Savules-
cu, women and their partners are morally required to use PGD to detect
not only disease-causing genes but also non-disease-causing genes in or-
der thereby to select the best possible genetic combination in their future
children. If we accept a moral obligation to improve embryos by means of
characteristics that will be deemed advantageous in future offspring, we
are in effect endorsing a project of creating enhanced offspring. Hence,
the adoption of the PPB would send society down a very slippery slope,
a slope that would be especially problematic for women. The concept
of procreative beneficence gives us no reason to believe that beneficence
should end at the embryonic stage. Indeed, Savulescu and Kahane specifi-
cally link their principle to the “moral reasons parents have to care about
the potential for well-being of their future children. . . . Couples often
wait years to build financial, emotional and other resources, in order to
provide a better environment for their future child to grow. In waiting to
have a family, they are selecting a child who will have a better life” (2009,
276). They also link their principle to choices about children’s “educa-
tional environment” (2009, 284); that is, they are clearly interested in a
“beneficence” that goes well beyond embryo selection.
Thus, adhering to the PPB might generate a variety of additional re-
quirements, primarily but not exclusively for women, to ensure the ex-
istence of a child “who is expected to have the best life.” Any woman
planning to have a child would likely have a moral obligation (perhaps
along with her partner and her society) to create the best possible circum-
stances for any conception, pregnancy, and childbirth that she undergoes.
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    129

For example, excellent nutrition would become not just a wise choice but
a moral obligation, along with complete abstention from alcohol, caf-
feine, and even many prescription medications for her own physical and
psychological well-being, because all of these things can harm the fetus.
Perhaps a woman would have a moral obligation to quit her job or move
to an area with a better climate or one that provides the best possible
prenatal care.
Maybe it would not stop there. To ensure the best possible life for a
child, the parents would have to consider whether to sacrifice enough to
provide music lessons, computer classes, swimming instruction, or hockey
practice. Or maybe all of them. The parents would have to choose, what-
ever their costs, the best possible education for their children, the best
possible health care, and the best possible neighborhood in which to live.
Perhaps they ought to move to a larger home, immigrate to another coun-
try, or provide three siblings if those actions are in the child’s best inter-
ests. Perhaps they should even give up the child to other parents; even if
the original parents can provide a satisfactory upbringing, there are likely
others who can do better. We would need to have a national or interna-
tional registry of excellent parents to whom children could be transferred
once their original parents failed to maximize their well-being.
Although some of these measures might potentially contribute to pro-
ducing the best possible life for future children, it is highly implausible
to say that they all are moral obligations because most are far beyond
what can be expected of any human being and require psychological and
material sacrifices so stringent that people are likely to reject procreation
Savulescu and Kahane say that the PPB is not an “absolute obliga-
tion”; it can be overridden by other concerns, including “the welfare of
the parents, [and] of existing children” (2009, 278). So Savulescu might
say that none of the extraordinary measures I cited earlier would be
morally required if there are reasons not to do them—namely, the harm
that they cause to “reproducers.” Moreover, procreative beneficence “is
an essentially private enterprise,” he says, aimed at generating “the best
child, of the possible children, a couple could have” (Savulescu 2001,
424, my emphasis). “[The] [P]PB is not the view that reproducers should
be coerced into selecting the most advantaged child, or punished if they
don’t” (Savulescu and Kahane 2009, 279). Hence, the PPB does not allow
130    Chapter 7

a government or social agencies to police pregnant women’s behavior or

to make IVF and PGD compulsory. Savulescu adds, “For the purposes of
public policy, there should be a presumption in favour of liberty in liberal
democracies. So, ultimately, we should allow couples to make their own
decisions about which child to have” (2001, 425). (Notice that there is
still no indication of who “we” are.)
But adopting the PPB sets the stage for at least some of the potential
harms to parents described here to be considered morally acceptable in
the interests of producing children who have the best life possible, up
to the point where the harm to “reproducers” overrides the benefits to
children. Moreover, implementing the PPB on a wide scale would—de-
spite Savulescu’s disclaimer—affect public policy, for it would require a
massive redeployment of medical resources and health-care personnel. It
is just false to assume that a widely adopted moral principle respecting
human reproduction is neutral with respect to social action or that it will
not have effects—in this case, negative effects—on women’s well-being
and freedom. I therefore conclude that there are no good reasons to adopt
the PPB. Women do not have an obligation to use IVF and PGD to pro-
duce the supposedly best possible child.
At the beginning of this section, I said that Savulescu’s PPB might be
regarded as a possible basis for an obligation not to reproduce: that is,
if one could not achieve procreative beneficence, then one would have a
responsibility not to procreate. However, I have argued that the PPB itself
is not morally acceptable. Hence, the failure to abide by the PPB cannot
provide a morally compelling reason not to have children.
It is noteworthy that the debates about whether to conform to the PPB,
like the debates about the Repugnant Conclusion (described in chapter
5), are conducted with complete disregard for the fact that human per-
sons—women—are necessary to produce children. They ignore the basic
feminist principle of concern for women’s well-being and reproductive
rights. It is odd that the utilitarians who discuss these concepts separate
from each other never see their negative relationship. The goal of having
the best possible child undermines the goal of maximizing the number of
children produced because large numbers of children—whether in a fam-
ily or in a society—are likely to have less material well-being, less parental
attention, and possibly greater risk of serious illnesses. That is, to the
extent that the PPB is adopted, it undermines the Repugnant Conclusion,
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    131

and to the extent that the Repugnant Conclusion is adopted, it under-

mines the PPB. It is surely philosophically significant that these utility-
based principles are not simultaneously viable.
Both the Repugnant Conclusion and the PPB require that women maxi-
mize certain reproductive outcomes. In discussing procreation, however,
proponents of the Repugnant Conclusion and the PPB do not require max-
imization from other persons, the state, or institutions—even though there
are other methods, far less costly to women, of attaining at least some of
the procreative goods that the Repugnant Conclusion and the PPB alleg-
edly offer. The goal of procreative beneficence, for example, would be as-
sisted by excellent prenatal, maternal, and neonatal care; the development
of effective contraception and readily accessible abortion services; univer-
sally available childcare and outstanding education; universally available
health care; and the reduction of socioeconomic inequalities.

Might There be a Responsibility Not to Have Children in Order to

Avoid Causing Harm?

Critic Michael Parker rejects Savulescu’s PPB. He nonetheless thinks that

people have an obligation to “consider carefully whether it is reasonable
to expect that the child they are thinking of conceiving is going to be
born under conditions conducive to the possibility of a ‘good life.’” But
he adds, “What counts as the good in a particular case, will be meaning-
ful and reasonable only within the context of discursive rules, including
rules of justification, of the communities within which it is being used as
a justification” (2007, 282).
Unfortunately, if that is how “what counts as the good” is determined,
his statement may well imply that in a male-dominant and patriarchal so-
ciety, it is “good” for every woman to be uneducated and married young,
to be subject all her life to her husband, and to bear as many babies as
possible. Although such customs would reflect that community’s practices
and values, its “discursive rules” would doom all women to lives that
in many and perhaps most cases are demonstrably not all that good in
terms of the women’s talents, potential, and life happiness. The concept
of the good life that we should seek for our offspring is surely not en-
tirely dependent on the particular community within which we are rear-
ing children.
132    Chapter 7

Nonetheless, Parker’s suggestion about the relevance to procreation

of “conditions conducive to the possibility of a ‘good life’” for the pos-
sible child is well taken. Parker allows the possibility, on grounds of be-
neficence itself, that there may be “objective conditions required for the
possibility of flourishing of any human life” (2007, 282). We need to in-
vestigate whether any general conditions are required for human flourish-
ing such that their absence creates an obligation not to procreate. In the
following sections, I consider some possibilities.

1.╇ A Responsibility Not to Procreate Because of Being Too Young or

Too Old
If children flourish when their parents are an appropriate age to rear
them, perhaps individuals have a responsibility not to have children if
they themselves (the prospective parents) are too young. Derek Parfit in-
vents a now-classic example of a fourteen-year-old girl who chooses to
have a child: “Because she is so young, she gives her child a bad start in
life. . . . If this girl had waited for several years, she would have had a dif-
ferent child, to whom she would have given a better start in life” (1984,
358). Should we say that this girl, a child herself, had a moral obligation
not to procreate at that particular time?
Parfit has other philosophical goals in mind, and he never mentions the
kinds of worries that feminists or concerned parents might raise about the
circumstances under which a fourteen-year-old becomes pregnant. Some
of us would wonder who made this child pregnant and whether she was
the victim of sexual assault; what the father’s capacities and moral re-
sponsibilities might be; whether others can help with rearing the baby;
and the degree to which a fourteen-year-old is capable of making fully
informed decisions about the continuation of her pregnancy and the rear-
ing of a child.
Parfit would no doubt claim that these worries are irrelevant to the
case itself, which he uses to raise questions about the identity of the baby.
(I say more about what he calls the “Non-Identity Problem” in chapter
8.) Yet their complete omission is connected to the problems with the Re-
pugnant Conclusion that I cited in chapter 5. It is one more indication of
the ways in which Parfit and other philosophers (such as Savulescu) who
explore abstract issues related to population are oblivious to the fact that
it is women (or in this case girls) who become pregnant and bear children
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    133

and that it is their lives that are made better or in some cases unutterably
worse by the conditions and circumstances in which they procreate. The
failure to take into account the lived experience of procreation and child
rearing for women and for men not only makes these discussions highly
“theoretical” and unrealistic but also introduces errors into moral reason-
ing about the justification of procreation.
A fourteen-year-old is unlikely to choose parenthood freely and au-
tonomously. Her capacity to make such a major decision would be com-
promised by her age and perhaps by other factors such as poverty, sexual
violence, inadequate and incomplete education, and drug and alcohol use.
Kenneth DeVille cites evidence that pregnant adolescents in the United
States, “when compared to their non-pregnant peers, are poor problem
solvers and frequently cognitively deficient.” He also mentions studies
that show that “as a group, pregnant adolescents possess fewer social
skills, poorer self images, and fewer familial and social contacts than oth-
er adolescents their own age” (1997, 263). Hence, these girls cannot be
considered morally culpable for their childbearing “choices.” If “ought”
implies “can”—if, that is, the ascription of a moral obligation requires the
existence of the ability to carry out the obligation—then it is otiose to say
that young girls, including Parfit’s fourteen-year-old, ought not to choose
to have children.
In general, pubescent and early-teen girls—as well as their male
peers—are too young to become parents. This claim is not an argument
for enforced celibacy for young people, nor is it a case for compulsory
contraception or compulsory abortion. It is simply the recognition that
the younger the parent, the more difficult it is to take on the parenting
role and the greater the likelihood of worrisome outcomes not only for
the child but also for the teen parent. Yet the minimum age for good par-
enting is in part culture dependent. Although an eighteen-year-old in one
social context can be a satisfactory parent, in another she might not be,
regardless of her own personal characteristics.
In general, the more inadequate the society’s social safety net, the hard-
er it will be for a young person to be a successful parent. In addition,
the more complex and “developed” the society, the longer young people
must spend in education and the more they must postpone paid work
and independent life—along with parenthood. Indeed, young women in
the West can be forgiven for noticing that there seems to be no good time
134    Chapter 7

for a woman in the twenty-first century to have a baby, given the cultural
message that she must fit in getting educated, hunting for a job, finding
a life partner, and developing some financial security before becoming
The issue of when one is too young for motherhood is complicated
by the fact that women’s fertility gradually declines through their late
twenties and early thirties; hence, there may be good reasons for having
a baby earlier rather than later. Indeed, some argue that “Western soci-
ety’s stigmatization of teen motherhood [is] profoundly hypocritical and
misogynistic. Young women’s instincts to procreate . . . ‘are suppressed in
the interests of society’s timetable’” (Hilary Mantel, quoted in McLaren
2010, L3). As I suggested in chapter 1, we should be suspicious of the
deployment of the concept of “instinct” in the context of childbearing.
Nonetheless, the contemporary tendency toward later and later procre-
ation does not mean that a pregnant woman of twenty or twenty-one
is necessarily making a mistake, provided the pregnancy is the result of
well-considered choice, she has the necessary social support, and she is
prepared for motherhood.
The other side of the age issue is the question whether some people
ought not to have children because they are too old. The idea of being
“too old” for parenthood is strongly gendered. Women older than thir-
ty-four having their first child are sometimes referred to as “elderly pri-
migravidas.” In contrast, men, because their fertility lasts longer, often
father children when they are well past the age of sixty, seventy, or even
eighty. Their offspring are regarded as tributes to their continuing virility,
and these older fathers are seldom subjected to criticism. But a woman
who has a child in her midforties is likely to be subjected to stern moral
Such criticisms are unjustified. If men are not too old in their midfor-
ties to be parents, it is unfair to declare women too old and to say that
women have a moral obligation not to procreate after a certain age. It
is both ageist and sexist. Older women can do a fine job of nurturing
children, as is evidenced by grandmothers who sometimes end up raising
their grandchildren when the children’s own parents are unavailable, un-
able, or unwilling. Critics sometimes express the worry that older women
will not live to raise their children to adulthood. Children supposedly
have a “right” not to be orphaned (Parks 1999, 84). Yet there is at least
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    135

an equal danger with respect to older men; in fact, the danger is greater
because men’s life expectancy is on average lower than women’s.
Indeed, we cannot predict who will live and who will die. A young
mother of twenty-five might be killed in a car accident. A woman who
gives birth at forty-five may live for another thirty-five years. If critics
were genuinely worried about the supposed fate of orphans, they would
be urging men as well as women not to become parents if they work in
dangerous industries, fail to care for their health, or engage in risky lei-
sure pursuits.
Moreover, as Jennifer Parks points out, we can’t necessarily assume
that the forty-five-year-old first-time mother could simply have chosen
motherhood at an earlier age: “Due to a lack of equal opportunity in the
workforce many women established their careers at the expense of moth-
erhood. The time, energy, and dedication that their careers demanded
compromised their option to be mothers during their career building, re-
productive years. The years during which women are most fertile are the
years during which their careers are most demanding: to take time off for
maternity leave, for sick days for one’s children, and for other maternal
duties is to put one’s entire career at risk” (1999, 80). Thus, I don’t think
we should say that some women ought not to reproduce just because they
are too old.
Nonetheless, I am not endorsing the use of reproductive technologies
to even out the biological differences between women and men by en-
abling women to gestate and give birth well into their sixties. Although
men are able to become biological parents later in life, egalitarian ide-
als do not require that society automatically provide the technology and
resources for women to become pregnant after their reproductive years
have ended.
Although there have been cases, thanks to IVF using other women’s
eggs, of successful pregnancy in women who are sixty or older, such
choices are not necessarily morally justifiable. What is morally problem-
atic about them is not the simple fact that the woman is well past the
usual reproductive age; much more problematic are the facts that such
pregnancies are so difficult to achieve and sustain and that the infants
and mother are subsequently at greater risk. Postmenopausal procreation
is an experiment. No one knows the long-term effects on the women or
their offspring. Moreover, such women do not produce their own eggs;
136    Chapter 7

they need one or more eggs donated by or bought from another woman.
They need IVF to fertilize the donated or purchased egg(s), using their
male partner’s sperm or that of another man. Then the fertilized egg(s)
must be inserted into the uterus. Postmenopausal women do not pro-
duce adequate hormones to initiate and sustain a pregnancy; so they need
many drugs. The use of IVF increases their chance of carrying multiple
pregnancies; the result is a high-risk pregnancy, with health dangers for
both the women and their babies.
Another problem of technologically induced pregnancies in older
women is the costs they incur for health-care personnel, facilities, and
resources. Doctors are arguably not justified in using their expertise for
postmenopausal pregnancies because when resources are used to support
a sixty-year-old woman who wants a baby, they are less available for
other gynecological, obstetric, and perinatal needs, including preventing
infertility, treating infertility in younger women, prenatal care, and care
for neonates, especially premature babies.
Finally, one can ask about the legitimacy of providing children for
postmenopausal women in the context of overpopulation (I discuss the
issue of overpopulation at length in chapter 9). It is highly unlikely that
the babies of postmenopausal women contribute in any significant way to
problems of overpopulation, but some philosophers argue that even one
extra child incurs a serious cost to the planet.
I conclude that the moral question about older women having babies is
not a matter of their stage of life. Sheer chronological age is not sufficient
to make it morally unjustified for a woman to seek motherhood, and
she does not have an obligation not to procreate simply because of her
relatively advanced age. The issue rather has to do with the extent of the
costs to the health-care system, the risks to herself and her infant(s), and
the requirement of other women’s gametes in order to meet her desire.

2.╇ A Responsibility Based on the Potential Parent’s Sexuality or Marital

Those who highly value the so-called traditional family, consisting of a
married heterosexual couple and their biological offspring, sometimes ar-
gue that it is harmful to children for them to be born to a single woman or
to a woman who has a lesbian partner. In chapter 1, I suggested that the
burden of providing justification should rest not on those who desire not
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    137

to have children, but on those who choose to have them. But those who
choose procreation who happen to be single or in a same-sex relationship
have no higher burden of justification, I argue, than do those who are
married and in a heterosexual relationship.
In fact, in my view the burden of evidence ought to be on those crit-
ics who regard procreation by single persons or by same-sex couples as
morally wrong. They do not provide empirical evidence for such a claim.
Instead, the bases of the claim are a belief (often bolstered by scriptural
references) in the intrinsic rightness of heterosexual married unions and
perhaps a repugnance for any woman who is not sexually and romanti-
cally tied to a man. Although there is not space to make a full and com-
plete argument here, I reject biases based on relationship status or sexual
orientation. Whether parents harm or benefit children depends on how
the children are raised, the parents’ maturity and psychological develop-
ment, and the material and social conditions in which they live, not the
status of the parents’ relationship or the nature of the parents’ sexuality.
Given that there are growing numbers of families in which parents are
single or of the same sex, I know of no evidence showing that children
are harmed by the mere fact that their parents are not together or are of
the same sex. In fact, the most recent evidence indicates that offspring of
lesbian mothers do very well (Gartrell and Bos 2010).
If critics are worried in particular about the influence of lesbian par-
ents’ sexuality on the child, I would make two points. First, the concern
about the influence of the parents’ sexuality assumes without argument
precisely what is at issue: that there is something problematic about same-
sex sexual orientation. No one worries about what children learn about
sexuality from heterosexual parents. The bias against same-sex sexuality
is an unfounded a priori assumption whose correctness we have no rea-
son to accept. In effect, the critics assume what they should be trying to
prove. Second, there is no particular evidence that children acquire their
sexual identity by learning from their parents. If they did, then it would
be impossible for so many gay, lesbian, and bisexual offspring to come
from heterosexual parents and for heterosexual offspring to come from
gay, lesbian, or bisexual parents. For these reasons, I deny that same-sex
sexual orientation is the basis for an obligation not to have children.
The one complicating factor that appears to be connected to the
potential parents’ sexuality arises in the case of two men who are in a
138    Chapter 7

relationship and want to have a child biologically related to one of them.

They will, of course, have to invite a woman to conceive and gestate the
offspring. This situation potentially raises issues about adoption (if the
nonbiologically related man wants to be the child’s legal parent). More
important, however, it also introduces various moral problems related
either to so-called contract motherhood or paid surrogacy (if the men
hire a woman to be the gestator) or to a woman’s willingness to engage
without pay in the biological labor and make no claim on the child she
bears (so-called altruistic surrogacy). These problems are complex mor-
al, social, and practical issues, which I have chosen to exclude from this
book. However, it is noteworthy that the potential problems here are not
connected to the men’s sexuality per se; the problems are connected to the
biological fact that men cannot gestate and bear children.
What about a woman who is without a partner? Does she have an
obligation not to have a child? Surely this is a case where it is impossible
to generalize, but her single status is not in itself a factor that morally pre-
cludes motherhood. Every single woman who wants a child must make
the decision based not just on the longing for a child, but on a clear as-
sessment of her personal and material resources and her network of social
support. (In that respect, her situation is not different from the kind of
assessment that couples need to make.) Pragmatically speaking, it tends
to be better for a parent to have help in raising a child. Child rearing is
both a psychological and a physical challenge. It may not literally “take
a village,” but no human being can function twenty-four hours a day,
and everyone can benefit from other individuals’ assistance, advice, and
experience. That help can come from the child’s other parent, or it can
come from other relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues, babysitters, and
childcare centers. Hence, the mere fact that a parent is without a partner
does not mean that the parent is alone, that she cannot be a good mother,
or that her child will have a bad life.
However, if a prospective parent is truly alone, without any reliable
family or friends, then she would have good reason to reconsider parent-
hood. If such a person is alone because of an inability to sustain good
relationships, then it seems unlikely that she can be a good or even an
adequate parent. The child certainly will not fill the void in her life or
heal her psychological wounds. Hence, in that case, any obligation on the
part of a single woman not to have children would occur by virtue of her
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    139

inability to sustain connections to other human beings, not by virtue of

her single status. (We can imagine that some married persons might have
the same problem and therefore also ought not to have children.)

3.╇ A Responsibility Based on the Potential Parent’s Material Situation

The potential parent’s or parents’ material situation might make child-
bearing morally unjustified if the parents are so poor as not to be able to
support the child. Ironically, of course, it is precisely the poorest prospec-
tive parents who are unlikely to have access to reliable and safe contra-
ception or to safe and legal abortion services; hence, they are less likely
to have a choice about whether to have children. Within developing na-
tions, they may also be more likely to want to have children because in
very poor environments children are one of the few assets that one can
produce oneself; they are a source of labor and of household and personal
care. In the wealthier West, however, children are less likely to be or to
be needed to be a labor and care resource. Indeed, they are much more
likely to be a financial liability; so of course it makes sense for prospec-
tive Western parents to think seriously and carefully about their financial
capacity to support their offspring.
Yet there is altogether too much media handwringing about the sup-
posed fecklessness and even manipulativeness of poor people, who alleg-
edly have more children than they can “afford” and who therefore end up
taking advantage of whatever paltry support the state may offer. Before
such persons are condemned, it would be necessary to know a great deal
about their intentions, motives, social networks, and material situations.
It would also be necessary to know whether and to what extent they have
choices about how many children to have.
Most important of all, it is unjust to require that childbearing and
rearing be a privilege available only to the wealthy. Those who are poor
relative to the mainstream suffer enough without being told that they
ought to be childless. If we simply say that “the poor” ought not to have
children, we are falsely generalizing across a large number of varied in-
dividuals in varied circumstances and heartlessly condemning individuals
who are not wealthy or middle class to missing the pleasures and rewards
of child rearing.
The crucial point here is the minimum standard that should be used.
It is not completely clear what constitutes being able to “afford” children
140    Chapter 7

and what is the financial line below which no one should reproduce.
People’s circumstances change throughout their lives. At a point when
women are most fertile, an individual’s or couple’s resources may be mini-
mal because they are still relatively young. Their financial and material
prospects may grow as their child grows.
Moreover, good child rearing is just not a function of the number of
toys, clothes, or computer games the parents can provide. The minimal
desiderata for providing a decent life for one’s children are too often
defined by reference to what the wealthy and well educated regard as
important. Such a culture-bound definition of “not too poor” would be
too high. The middle- and owning-class standards of abundance set by
contemporary “helicopter” parents cannot be taken to constitute an ap-
propriate minimum for the morality of procreation. Setting the standard
too high makes luxuries such as private schooling, the latest technology,
and designer clothing seem essential. The consumer culture of twenty-
first-century Western life may make a child without a room to herself or
access to a cell phone seem pitiable.
That’s clearly a mistake. Although in the West each generation wants
more than its predecessors, the “hedonic treadmill” is such that people
become accustomed to more and more luxury and are no happier as a
result. Yet during the Great Depression millions of parents succeeded in
rearing healthy, functioning, and flourishing children with very few re-
sources. Some basics are obviously essential: nutritious food, secure shel-
ter, competent health care, and sufficient education. But no parent can be
expected to provide even these basics entirely on her own; it makes sense
to insist that parents be assisted at the very least through the provision of
public education and publicly funded medical care.
Thus, although one’s material resources (or lack of them) are certainly
relevant to the morality of the decision whether to have children or not,
it is unjustified and even impossible to make blanket statements about
the supposed level of financial eligibility and material well-being neces-
sary for child rearing. At the same time, it seems obvious that if one has
no prospects and truly cannot even feed or clothe oneself, then one ought
not to have children at all. Inadequate material assets may likewise gener-
ate an obligation not to have more than one child so that one can direct
one’s minimal resources to caring for that child. Of course, if an adult is
compelled to live in abject poverty, her situation is not just an argument
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    141

against child rearing. It is evidence of the injustice, incompetence, and

indifference of the society within which she lives. Such a person certainly
ought not to have a child, but that moral responsibility may be as much
or more the result of her society’s failure, indifference, and neglect as it is
of her own unsuitability to be a parent.

4.╇ A Responsibility Based on the Likelihood That the Child Will Be

Harmed by Living in the Society
Conscientious parents sometimes have the thought that the world is too
dangerous a place for children. My own mother grew up hearing stories
from her father, who survived the trenches of World War I. She herself
lived through the Great Depression and World War II. She told me, her
firstborn, that as a young adult she wondered if she was doing the right
thing in choosing to have children. I had similar qualms before conceiving
my own first child, although my concerns were based at that time on fears
of nuclear devastation, environmental degradation, and overpopulation.
How dangerous is too dangerous to justify the choice to have a child?
The question is similar to the earlier one, about how poor is too poor to
justify the choice to have a child, and probably just as difficult to answer.
Yet in circumstances where prospective parents have a real choice about
procreation, it seems that there must be a threshold of hazard or op-
pression below which individuals have a responsibility to choose not to
Historically, prospective parents must have relied a great deal on faith
(in their ability to protect their offspring), hope (that the times would
change and improve), and even a selective inattention to the risks. Oth-
erwise, a concern for dangers to their offspring would often have made
them fear for their offspring’s life and would have led some—those who
truly had a choice—not to have children at all.
Sue Donaldson suggests that we need to distinguish between “neces-
sary human suffering” (death, incurable illness, psychological and mental
pain from the inevitable exigencies of human life) and “contingent human
suffering” (resulting from poverty, violence, and avoidable disease) (per-
sonal communication, February 17, 2009). What’s in the first category is
unavoidable just by virtue of being human. For David Benatar, it will be
recalled, these facts of human life are always enough to make coming into
existence a harm. I have argued that there are ample reasons to disagree
142    Chapter 7

with him. No one can ensure their child a pain-free existence or a life with
no suffering, yet life is usually well worth living nonetheless.
There is a real question, however, about whether and to what extent
the likelihood of contingent human suffering should count against the
morality of procreation. Consider the harms arising from violent or harsh
environments, famine and widespread malnourishment, war, and environ-
mental threats. Consider also the existence of oppression, as a result of
which one’s prospective child may be badly and unfairly treated because
of her sex, race, sexuality, impairment, or ethnicity. One might argue that
to choose not to have a child because of the dangers from sexism, racism,
or other forms of oppression is to acquiesce in the continuation of those
oppressions. One might even argue that one’s future child might be the
special person who helps to resolve planetary threats such as starvation
and war. But such responses take a genuine risk on behalf of one’s child,
who has no choice whether to come into existence. And no child should
be expected to function as an instrument for diminishing social conflict.
As with the condition of poverty, it seems almost impossible to make
useful generalizations about which social environments are too danger-
ous to justify procreation. Yet I think that conscientious prospective par-
ents who wonder whether the world is too dangerous for procreation are
not mistaken in giving the question serious consideration. In addition,
where the risks are extreme and unrelenting, children’s suffering highly
likely, and the probability of improvement quite small, the dangers of pro-
creation may become so dire as to raise questions about whether it is even
worthwhile to continue the human species (a topic I discuss in chapter 9).

5.╇ A Responsibility Based on the Likelihood That One Will Not Be a

Good Parent
Onora O’Neill remarks that it is “hard to know exactly what the minimal
requirements for child rearing in a given society are; hard to foresee one’s
own capacities and situation over a long stretch of life; and impossible
to tell what difficulties a particular child may bring” (1979, 29). These
factors are the great unknowns of choosing to have children, especially
the first child, although some of the unknowns apply to subsequent chil-
dren as well. Nonetheless, before making such a decision, we surely have
a responsibility to be aware of our potential strengths and weaknesses
vis-à-vis childcare—what Lisa Cassidy calls our “parenting competence”
(2006, 44)—and to decide accordingly.
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    143

Cassidy argues, “Those people who anticipate being incompetent par-

ents should not parent” (2006, 46). I take this claim as obviously true,
even though there may well be epistemological questions about how to
determine whether one will be incompetent (Cassidy 2006, 49). Parenting
is the kind of activity in the West that one probably learns as one goes
along, and it is affected by the kind of child(ren) one has. One might be
an excellent parent to one child, but not as good with another who has
a different temperament, set of abilities, or psychological development.
Perhaps we cannot know in advance how well we will do. But Cassidy
gives the example of a friend who attempted to care for a puppy and in so
doing realized that her abusive behavior toward the animal made her not
a good candidate for parenthood (2006, 45). That would be important
evidence to consider. People who abuse their children or who fail to pro-
vide even the necessities for existence are obviously bad parents; anyone
who suspects herself of being likely to engage in such behavior should
choose not to procreate. We have a fundamental duty of nonmaleficence,
refraining from doing harm, and that duty extends to the well-being of
children who might come into existence as a result of our choices.
There are also evaluative questions about how to determine what con-
stitutes competence. Cassidy argues that “those people who anticipate
being averagely competent parents should not parent”; hence, individuals
who anticipate that they will be less than excellent parents should choose
not to have children. “Parenting is just too important to do in a way
that is just good enough. . . . [A]ll things considered, excellent parenting
is markedly preferable to average parenting” (2006, 46, 47, my empha-
sis). Cassidy thereby generates an explicit standard for the justification of
procreation: individuals who choose to have a child must be the sort of
person who will be an excellent parent.
At first sight, that standard appears very high, and it seems unlikely
that many current parents would meet it. In fact, we do not require “ex-
cellence” in teachers, coaches, or babysitters, all of whom spend a great
deal of time working with children. Excellence is certainly laudable, but
if everyone were required to be excellent, very few adults would even be
allowed near children.
Of course, the ability to meet the standard depends on what is meant by
“excellent parenting” and “average parenting.” According to Cassidy, ex-
cellent parents are “patient, giving, accessible, calm, fun, compassionate,
144    Chapter 7

[and] strong.” By contrast, her description of merely competent parents is

chilling. Such parents “do not regularly beat their children, though per-
haps they lose their tempers and spank them. Competent parents do not
psychologically torment their children, but they may be smothering, or
selfish, or cold, or overly demanding, or uninterested, or have any other
of those utterly mundane qualities that would make someone a less than
ideal parent” (2006, 49, 48).
Given these descriptions, Cassidy’s rejection of merely adequate par-
enting is easier to accept. Indeed, one wonders why people who are merely
competent in Cassidy’s terms would even want to have children. Perhaps
they are ignorant about children’s needs. Perhaps they are self-deceived
about their own personalities and suitability to be parents. Perhaps they
are simply selfish and don’t care what the costs of their behavior might be
to their vulnerable and dependent offspring. We certainly cannot say that
life as the child of merely competent parents would not be worth living;
it is quite likely to be worthwhile. But if we hope to do what is right, we
ought to aim to give our children a good life, and such a life may well be
precluded if we are capable of only average parenting in Cassidy’s sense.
Hence, we have a responsibility not to reproduce if we cannot meet a high
standard of parenting capacity. Despite the normative and epistemologi-
cal difficulties of that statement, it is safe to say that it is correct.

6.╇ A Responsibility Based on the Dangers of Multiples

Earlier in this chapter, I talked briefly about the serious dangers of ges-
tating multiples to both women and their future children. I suggest that
women have a responsibility not to deliberately seek to have triplets, qua-
druplets, and other HOMs. If the only way that they can procreate is by
having HOMs, then they have a responsibility to avoid procreation. Of
course, it is unlikely that very many women are faced with the choice
between HOMs and no child at all. Nonetheless, the immorality of delib-
erately choosing multiples should not be underestimated.
Women who give birth to twins, triplets, or quadruplets cannot be
said to have acted irresponsibly if their multiples are conceived by chance
and not as the result of any type of deliberate intervention. However,
the situation becomes morally more complex the more that technologies
such as IVF are introduced into the reproductive process. To increase the
odds of a pregnancy in IVF (and sometimes to speed up a woman’s family
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    145

completion plans), several embryos may be inserted into her uterus at

once. The woman who, through her doctor’s agency, carried this pro-
cedure to its biological extreme is Nadya Suleman, the (in)famous and
cruelly named “Octomom,” already a single mother of six children under
the age of seven who then gestated and gave birth to eight more, all of
whom survived. Having that many children all at once is simply wrong,7
and it was even more wrong of her physician to transfer so many embryos
to her uterus.
The transfer of a large number of embryos is often defended on sev-
eral grounds. First, the very high costs of IVF and embryo transfer lead
physicians and parents to want to increase the chances of success by
transferring more than one or two. But reducing the personal costs of
reproductive technology is not an adequate reason for putting infant lives
at risk. Second, the embryos are considered to be the property of the
woman (and her male partner, if any), and the assumption is that the
owners may do what they like with their possessions. But ownership of
property does not give one the right to do anything whatsoever with that
property. (Ownership of a baseball bat does not entitle one to swing it in
the vicinity of someone else’s head.) Moreover, because the embryos may
one day grow into persons, they belong to the prospective mother not
so much in the way that inanimate objects such as books and dishes are
property, but in the sense that the prospective mother has authority over
their disposition. She can, for example, decide (subject to medical suit-
ability) whether to donate the embryos to other women or to offer them
for medical research. But there are limits on that authority. Because of the
dangers to the future children and the difficulty of competently raising so
many simultaneously, procreation via the implantation of a large number
of embryos is not morally justified. The responsibility for safe and appro-
priate transfer lies with the physician; Suleman’s physician failed in that
responsibility—indeed, failed drastically. Physicians have no obligation
to acquiesce in a prospective mother’s request to transfer a large number
of embryos. Indeed, for all the reasons I have listed, they have a moral
obligation to reject such demands.
Suleman’s behavior cannot be justified as the exercise of her reproduc-
tive rights because the choices she made go far beyond the right to repro-
duce in the negative sense—that is, the right not to be interfered with.
Instead, she chose and required extensive medical interventions (including
146    Chapter 7

the donation of sperm) in order to create and then sustain the pregnancy
and then to care for the tiny infants and herself after the birth. The moral
problem is not that she is a single mother; I have already argued that
marital status by itself is irrelevant to fitness as a parent. But several other
problems can be noted. First, there are the risks she took in gestating eight
fetuses at once as well as the drain on medical services that her pregnancy,
delivery, and care of her premature newborns required. No one knows,
at this point, what kinds of developmental needs her children may have
in the future and the specialized care they may require as they grow up.
Second, how will she care for all these infants, even with her own par-
ents’ help and even with the quarter-million dollars she has received for
allowing her family to be filmed (Bowe 2009)? Unless one is (at least) a
millionaire who can afford to hire excellent help, caring warmly and at-
tentively for so many young children all at once is impossible. Third, the
chances that the children will have a close relationship with their mother
are, by virtue of the competition for her attention, very small. And fourth,
as I discuss in the next chapter, it is unconscionable for one lone woman
to place such a large burden on the planet’s resources.
None of these comments casts or is intended to cast any aspersions on
the children themselves. As J. David Velleman puts it in another context,
Suppose we judge that people should not have more children than they can ad-
equately care for. Have we implied that there are children who should not have
been born? Yes, of course, if that statement means just that some children are born
after their parents should have stopped having children. Yes, too, if it means that
the birth of a child destined to be neglected is a regrettable kind of event. But we
have not implied, of any particular child, that his existence should be regretted or
that his birthday should not be celebrated. Loving an individual child and rejoic-
ing in his existence is perfectly consistent with thinking it wrong for parents like
his to have had so many children. (2005, 364)


The discussion in this chapter has necessarily been a mixed bag. Recall
that in the first chapter I suggested that the burden of proof or, more ac-
curately, the burden of justification should rest upon those who choose to
have children, not on those who choose not to. Simply not wanting to have
children, it seems to me, is a very good reason not to have them; no vul-
nerable lives are thereby in danger of being harmed by one’s indifference
An Obligation Not to Procreate?    147

or dislike. The person who believes it would be bad for herself to have
children is similarly justified, perhaps even obligated, not to have them.
In addition, the likelihood that one will be a bad parent or even a
merely competent parent in Cassidy’s rather chilling sense surely makes
one responsible for not becoming a parent. Extreme poverty and the dan-
gers in one’s world—violence, war, famine, racism, and so on—should at
least make any responsible person hesitate to procreate. And I believe that
the proven dangers of HOMs in pregnancy demonstrate that it is morally
wrong to make choices that will result in the gestation of quadruplets,
quintuplets, and so on.
By contrast, most of the complaints that are made about some prospec-
tive parents’ sexual identity or relationship status are simply irrelevant:
the claim that a person ought not to procreate because she is single or
nonheterosexual is not based on any evidence that marriage and hetero-
sexuality improve parenting or are better for children. The relevance of
parental age, however, is complex: extremes are undesirable (no one is
advocating fifteen-year-old mothers or ninety-year-old fathers), but what
matters is not the potential parent’s chronological age per se, but rather
her or his capacity to be a genuinely good mother or father.
Finally, Julian Savulescu’s PPB sets a standard for reproduction that
is outrageous: adhering to it would generate risks and costs for women,
dangers for their babies (especially if multiple embryos are transferred),
and a great deal of extra expense for health-care systems. Rejecting the
principle does not, however, mean that the risk of illness or impairment in
one’s offspring is irrelevant to the decision whether to procreate or not. In
the next chapter, I look at the implications of potential illness or impair-
ment in the fetus for deciding whether to reproduce. I also briefly discuss
the significance of impairments possessed by potential parents.
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation

In chapter 7, I argued that there is no obligation to achieve procreative

beneficence in Savulescu’s sense of the term, largely because of its costs
to women. But that is not to say there is no responsibility at all to con-
sider the future child’s health. It ought to be obvious and not in need of
argument that the aim in procreating should not be merely to produce a
child whose life is minimally tolerable. One should aim much higher, and
I think the vast majority of women and men do. In this chapter, I consider
the moral implications of illness and impairment with respect to the pro-
creation decision.
The question whether adults with impairments should be “allowed”
to become parents has a long and mostly unsavory history. The issue was
raised in eugenics debates during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
about the supposed need to improve the human species by discouraging
and preventing procreation by individuals with certain mental or physical
characteristics. And the question of whether and when abortion may be
morally justified on the grounds of fetal impairment is a familiar one to
both philosophers and the public. In jurisdictions that place legal restric-
tions on abortion services, access is often permitted on the basis of the
fetus’s characteristics.
I examine the first question, whether illness or impairment in the po-
tential parents morally precludes their procreating, later in this chapter.
The second question, whether and when fetal impairment or illness can
morally justify abortion, is not the main part of my focus here. Instead,
I am interested in a problem that appears more extreme: Are there cases
where fetal impairment or illness makes abortion not merely permissible,
but the morally obligatory choice? In other words, are there cases where
the obligation not to procreate is so strong that failure to abort because
of the fetus’s condition would be a moral wrong? And because the choice
150    Chapter 8

of abortion is at best the decision of last resort to prevent procreation, it

is also necessary to ask whether there are potential conditions of the fetus
(and the child it would otherwise become) that merit the prevention of
conception altogether. These questions about the conception of impaired
or ill fetuses and the failure to abort them are where I shall begin.
A responsibility to use contraception does not appear morally equiva-
lent to a responsibility to have an abortion. For several reasons, a re-
sponsibility to have an abortion seems more demanding. For example,
having an abortion may often require a higher degree of intervention into
the woman’s body than contraception. But not always. The comparative
degree of intrusion depends in part on the kind of contraception used:
hormonal methods might have a very powerful effect on the woman’s
body, whereas the use by her male partner of condoms likely will not. The
degree of intrusion also depends on the kind of abortion and the stage of
pregnancy at which it takes place: a very early abortion will involve less
upheaval to the woman’s body than a very late one.
At the same time, the responsibility to abort appears to be a more de-
manding duty than the responsibility to use contraception because, what-
ever one’s metaphysical views of the fetus’s status, it is indubitably a living
thing whose existence ends when an abortion is performed, whereas the
practice of contraception simply prevents a being from coming into ex-
istence. In addition, for some women, having an abortion can be like the
end of a relationship, a relationship that the woman may have chosen
to initiate and value very highly: the relationship to her fetus and to the
child that it may become. “If the child is wanted, parents often view their
fetus as their already existing child, a distinct person” (Vehmas 2002, 49).
For these reasons—that abortion can require major intervention into
the woman’s body; that it can be like the end of a relationship; and that
it ends the life of the fetus—a moral requirement to abort will usually re-
quire a stronger argument in support of it than will a moral requirement
to use contraception.

The Non-Identity Problem

To begin, consider some thought experiments—cases proposed by Der-

ek Parfit and James Lenman. In the classic Parfitian case (Parfit 1984,
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    151

367–71), we are asked to imagine that a woman may give birth to an

impaired or ill infant by conceiving this month or alternatively give birth
to a healthy and nonimpaired infant, necessarily a different (“non-identi-
cal”) one, by conceiving at a later month or year. Parfit also gives us the
case of Jane: “Jane has a congenital disease, that will kill her painlessly at
about the age of 40. This disease has no effects before it kills. Jane knows
that, if she has a child, it will have this same disease. . . . Knowing these
facts, Jane chooses to have a child” (1984, 375). Lenman presents the case
of Agnes, who knows she carries a gene that will make any child of hers
suffer a painful and unpleasant life, but she has intense maternal instincts
and goes ahead and has it anyway (2004b, 146).
The first characteristic of these thought experiments to notice is that
they all presuppose (and yet do not even recognize, let alone comment
on) an odd view of women. In fact, they’re arguably misogynist. The
thought experiments proceed as if women are as likely as not to make
procreative decisions that will disadvantage, perhaps severely, their off-
spring. In real life, as opposed to in male philosophers’ minds, it is unlike-
ly that women would make deliberate and informed decisions with such
results for their future children. On the contrary, although some women
may be feckless, negligent, or ignorant, most are highly concerned about
their children’s well-being and do their utmost to protect it. A woman
who is indifferent to her future child’s health is likely to be dealing with
serious problems of her own—abuse, lack of education, extreme poverty,
deep depression, or addiction. Hence, examples of women who happily
or at least indifferently contemplate giving birth to suffering children are
scarcely believable.
I have little doubt that Parfit and Lenman would say that these qualms
are irrelevant. Regardless of whether women routinely make procreative
decisions in full knowledge that the decisions will harm their children,
Parfit and Lenman would urge us to consider what these hypothetical
cases indicate. And, indeed, their thought experiments do what they are
intended to do: vividly raise the question of whether there is sometimes
an obligation not to have a child in order to avoid harm to the child. I
have already argued that Benatar is mistaken in claiming that it is always
better never to have been. At the same time, it is evident that not existing
is sometimes better, at least when the circumstances of life are intoler-
able and unlivable. Is there an obligation not to procreate when one’s
152    Chapter 8

potential child will be ill or impaired? Are the women in Lenman and
Parfit’s thought experiments engaged in wrongdoing?
Parfit points out that the kinds of procreative choices we make now
affect not only the circumstances but the actual identities of the persons
who will exist in the future (1984, 362–363). According to what Parfit
calls the “Non-Identity Problem,” when we procreate determines whom
we procreate. Most people probably think there is something wrong with
creating an impaired or ill infant if a small postponement in conception
would create another child who will be healthy. But Parfit thinks it is
difficult, in light of the fact of non-identity, to show why it is wrong,
for if we make seemingly bad choices, choices that result in harm to our
children, we nonetheless bring into existence persons who, without those
choices having been made, would not exist at all, persons whose lives are
in most cases at least minimally worth living and often much more than
that. (People with impairments are, after all, usually glad to be alive.) So
it would seem that we have not harmed them. It therefore appears dif-
ficult, Parfit suggests, to see what is wrong with any procreative decision,
provided it creates someone whose life is worth living.
Indeed, although Parfit does not mention it, the Non-Identity Problem
seems to justify a variety of ill-advised and morally dubious procreative
behaviors. For example, suppose a man insists that his wife must give him
a son; as a result, he repeatedly makes her pregnant and demands that she
abort when prenatal tests show that the fetus is female. But the son who is
born after her fifth attempt would not otherwise have existed, and he has
a life that is worth living, so his existence justifies the serious of pregnan-
cies and abortions. Does it?
Or imagine a heterosexual couple who decide they want to become
famous and wealthy by raising a family of sextuplets or septuplets. The
woman undergoes repeated hormonal priming to produce multiple eggs;
they are fertilized and inserted into her uterus, and she becomes pregnant.
She gives birth to seven infants, all of them premature. One dies and
several of the rest have serious physical and mental impairments. They
require a lifetime of medical care, and some of them experience great
pain. But they would not otherwise have existed, and their lives are not
so bad as not to be worth living. So those six surviving lives, even with
impairments, justify the process that produced them. Do they?
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    153

The Parfitian puzzle of non-identity is even broader than these imagi-

nary cases, for many different kinds of changes in both our individual and
our collective behavior will have an effect on which children are born.
These changes include the building of factories, the placement of roads,
the amount of trade, and the nature of communication (Harman 2004,
89). A society that produces nuclear armaments, widespread contamina-
tion of water, rapid industrialization, and military conflict will generate
different children than if it had not engaged in these dangerous practices.
Children are harmed by nuclear proliferation, environmental degrada-
tion, the spread of factories, and militarization. Yet the fact of non-identi-
ty seems to mean that a wide range of repellent collective behavior cannot
be condemned on the basis of its damaging effects on children because
the children produced would not otherwise have existed at all, and they
presumably have lives that are at least minimally worth living.
There must be something wrong with a concept that provides a ratio-
nalization for such immoral behavior. And, indeed, there is another way
of looking at the identity of offspring, a way that does not justify morally
repellent behavior.
In the genetic sense certainly, a child’s identity will be changed if the
child is conceived at a different time, for a different egg and sperm will
produce a genetically heterogeneous infant. This is the type of identity
that is presupposed by the Non-Identity Problem. In that sense, the slight-
est difference (not to mention the big differences) in behavior is likely to
change the potential identity of one’s offspring. In another sense, however,
and from the point of view of the parent or parents, the child’s identity
will be the same no matter when she or he is conceived, for it is also
possible to identify one’s child in terms of its social place in the family.
Prospective parents are ordinarily not especially interested in having the
specific child that will result from the union of one particular egg and one
particular sperm. Simo Vehmas argues that from parents’ point of view
the exact moment of conception does not produce a different child (2002,
52). During a pregnancy, the child the couple is anticipating is their first
child, for example, or their second child. We can say that from their point
of view the identity of the child is simply “our first child” or “our next
child.” They want the child to be biologically related to them, of course,
but they do not care about the specific gametes from each parent. Nor
should they. Rather, they are simply interested in having their child, a
154    Chapter 8

child who is expected at a particular point in their lives. This latter form
of identity is the kind they care about and not the kind quibbled about in
the context of the Non-Identity Problem.
Thus, much of the contemporary debate about the Non-Identity Prob-
lem and the permissibility of having an impaired child has little connec-
tion to real-world parents because the child’s identity means something
quite different to prospective parents than it does to these philosophers.
As a result, the fact that our procreative choices (as well as other sorts of
choices) determine the unique genetic identity of the children who will
exist in the future (and who would not otherwise exist apart from these
choices) does not in itself constitute a justification for particular procre-
ative choices we make. Even if on the whole we produce children whose
lives are at least minimally worth living, our choices can harm the people
who will be our children—our first child, our second child, and so on.
Whatever egg and whatever sperm a child is made from, parents want
that child to be in good physical and mental condition. They want that
child, the child who will have a particular place in their family, to have as
many advantages (and avoid as many disadvantages) as possible. When a
woman has her first (or second or third) child, she wants that child to be
as healthy and happy as it can be.


Clearly, then, and contrary to what the Non-Identity Problem appears

to show, it is genuinely possible for prospective parents to do wrong by
deliberately creating children with impairments or severe illnesses, even
though the children with those genetic identities would not have existed
if they were created at another time. And governments can sometimes do
wrong by taking steps that endanger nations and harm the environment,
even if the entire generation of people now in existence would not have
existed without those harmful actions.
It therefore makes sense to say that where one can avoid causing im-
pairment in the fetus (for example, as a result of exposure to diseases such
as measles) by not conceiving now but instead waiting a month or even
a year to conceive, then the parents have an obligation not to conceive
now. The harm of conceiving now is the injury that might result to their
first child or to their next child. In that version of identity, harm to their
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    155

child can be avoided while preserving the child’s identity (as first, second,
or next child), and it is usually not asking much to say that such persons
should postpone conception until the danger of causing the impairment
is at an end.1 Hence, the woman in Parfit’s example whose child will be
born impaired if conceived this month should wait a month or more in
order to create a healthy child.
As Laura Purdy puts it, where we can be certain about the “degree
and inevitability of the suffering” our child will endure, “there is at least
a prima facie case against reproduction. . . . If we want to reproduce in
a situation of this sort, we need to ask ourselves whether we truly have
the welfare of our possible offspring at heart, or are we merely gratifying
a desire of our own” (2000, 318). By procreating under such circum-
stances, one may not violate obligations to a genetically specific future
child, but one might violate obligations one has “concerning the having
of children,” as Vehmas puts it (2002, 56)—the children who will be one’s
own biological children, one’s first child or second child, regardless of
which particular parental gametes produce those children.
In general, we can say that the prospective parents have a responsibil-
ity of nonmaleficence (avoidance or prevention of harm) to their future
first, second, and so on (if necessary) children. The responsibility of non-
maleficence toward future offspring has, I suggest, two components. The
first component is the responsibility of care toward any being that one
brings into existence. Vehmas, for example, writes, “Future parents as-
sume (or at least ought to assume) a strong responsibility towards the
well-being of their prospective child the minute they decide to reproduce”
(2002, 48, his emphasis). He presumably means that the pregnant woman
should eat well, get good prenatal care, protect her health, avoid toxic
environments and violence, and so on. There is also little doubt that dur-
ing pregnancy the woman should eschew excessive alcohol consumption
(which can result in fetal alcohol syndrome) and the use of illegal drugs,
which can be teratogenic.2
Although all of these behaviors are also good for the pregnant woman
herself, her capacity to engage in them may be mitigated by a variety
of factors, including addiction, poverty, an abusive or addicted partner,
lack of education, the necessity of living or working in a dangerous or
contaminated environment in order to survive, and oppression. In such
cases where her free choice with respect to the health of her pregnancy is
156    Chapter 8

severely compromised, she cannot be held morally responsible for dam-

age to the fetus. A society genuinely concerned about child health would
endeavor to reduce the incidence of alcoholism, drug addiction, and “do-
mestic” abuse through education, prevention programs, psychological
support, health care, and poverty reduction, in order to diminish the po-
tential harms sustained by fetuses. Moreover, a woman who in good faith
takes drugs prescribed to her by a physician can hardly be held morally
accountable if they harm her fetus (as the sad cases of Thalidomide and
Diethylstilbestrol demonstrate). In such a situation, the fault (if any) lies
with authorities—governments, policymakers, researchers, granting bod-
ies, and health-care workers—that fail to adequately test, monitor, and
regulate the use of the drug. So although pregnant women have a prima
facie responsibility of nonmaleficence toward their future children, the
failure to abide by this responsibility can sometimes be due to factors
beyond their control.
Thus, the responsibility of care for future offspring begins even before
conception, and it falls not only on future mothers but on future fathers
and the societies in which they live. According to the Barker Theory (so
named by its creator, scientist David Barker), “a woman’s diet at the time
of conception and during pregnancy have [sic] important effects on the
subsequent health of her offspring” not only during infancy and child-
hood, but throughout adulthood (Barker n.d.). Given that the future
child’s health depends largely on its health as a fetus, and given that the
fetus’s health depends on the health of the individuals who create it, pro-
spective parents ought to be in good physical condition at the time they
conceive. Meeting that condition requires that they already be taking care
of their health even before choosing to have children. Thus, the moral
responsibility for children’s well-being begins substantially before indi-
viduals decide to reproduce; it begins with the education of, health care
for, and flourishing of future parents throughout society.
The second component of nonmaleficence toward one’s future off-
spring is the responsibility not to deliberately create offspring who will
endure serious suffering. Some illnesses and impairments unfortunately
cannot be avoided altogether. Like Jane in Parfit’s example and Agnes in
Lenman’s example, persons with heritable impairments (such as Hunting-
ton’s chorea) or diseases (such as HIV) are in a different situation from
those who can simply postpone conception. It doesn’t matter when they
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    157

conceive; there will be the same likelihood that infection or impairment

will be passed on. Similar risks may occur in cases where there is only a
small window of opportunity in which to procreate—for example, for a
woman who has only recently become free of other responsibilities (such
as caring for siblings or aged relatives), is close to menopause, and has
only a year or two left in which to become pregnant. Because she is at an
advanced stage in her fertile years, her chance of creating a child with an
impairment is higher than it would have been when she was in her twen-
ties. Her choice is to (try to) conceive now or not to conceive at all. That
is, she has no way (setting aside the hiring of a contract mother or the use
of a “donor” ovum, both of which raise moral problems of their own) of
avoiding the risks to the fetus. What is the moral responsibility of persons
in these situations?
Purdy is uncompromising: “It is morally wrong to reproduce when we
know there is a high risk of transmitting a serious disease or defect. This
thesis holds that some reproductive acts are wrong, and my argument
puts the burden of proof on those who disagree with it to show why its
conclusions can be overridden” (2004, 144).
It’s plausible enough to say that deliberately conceiving and then sus-
taining the gestation of a child who will certainly suffer is not morally
justified. The best example is the one Purdy herself uses: Tay-Sachs dis-
ease, which involves painful deterioration and early death (2004, 144).
Where there is no way of minimizing the risk of suffering from serious
illness, I agree that it is prima facie wrong for a woman who has control
over her conceptive decisions to conceive biologically related children,
wrong for a man to cause her to conceive, and wrong for the woman to
continue the pregnancy if she has the opportunity to abort it. However,
procreative situations may not always be as morally clear-cut as the Tay-
Sachs case.

Epistemic Issues

In order to decide whether procreation is morally wrong in a particu-

lar case, it is first necessary to recognize potential epistemic uncertain-
ties. Unlike Jane’s and Agnes’s hypothetical situations, one cannot always
know that one carries an illness or the gene for an impairment or know
the likelihood of passing it on. Given this uncertainty, it is more difficult
158    Chapter 8

to generalize about the responsibility not to procreate. Vehmas, however,

goes even further: “The argument of parental responsibility . . . does not
require an obligation to know one’s genetic disorders. Parents have a pri-
ma facie right to remain in ignorance concerning their genetic make-up,
especially if they are willing to assume the responsibilities and care for
any kind of child” (2002, 59, his emphasis).
Vehmas’s claim is dubious. First, it is at least questionable that our
rights include an entitlement to ignorance. Our ignorance may at times
be understandable or excusable; that is, ignorance can be explained, and
it is sometimes, though certainly not always, morally pardonable. And
genetic tests ought not to be forced on individuals; perhaps that is what
Vehmas means. But for ignorance of one’s genetic makeup to be a mat-
ter of moral entitlement would require that others have a duty to protect
one from knowledge about one’s genetic inheritance, perhaps by not pre-
senting information when it is already available, perhaps by not arguing
for the value and importance of genetic testing (when it is relevant), and
perhaps by not even offering the opportunity for genetic tests. Yet it is
just implausible to suppose that family members and health-care provid-
ers have an obligation to protect their relatives or patients from access to
knowledge about their own bodies. Indeed, the reverse is more plausible:
that those who possess genetic knowledge or the means of acquiring it
have an obligation to make that knowledge or the means to it available
to the individuals to whom it is relevant.
Moreover, even if, as Vehmas says, prospective parents stand ready to
“assume the responsibilities and care for any kind of child,” that readiness
may not be morally sufficient to counterbalance the suffering that a child
may experience if she or he is born with a serious illness or impairment
as a result of the parents’ willful ignorance. The question for prospective
parents should not merely be “Am I ready to care for a child with a seri-
ous illness or impairment if I ignore information about my own genetic
liabilities?” but also “What price will my child pay for my ignorance by
being born with a serious illness or impairment?” Thus, contrary to what
Vehmas claims, prospective parents do have, generally speaking, a moral
responsibility to inform themselves, where the health-care services and
medical technologies are available, about their own health and about the
likelihood that they might pass on serious illnesses or impairments. Igno-
rance is not always a morally acceptable excuse.
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    159

There is, however, a second epistemic factor that complicates Purdy’s

uncompromising statement that “it is morally wrong to reproduce when
we know there is a high risk of transmitting a serious disease or defect.”
That factor is the difficulty of predicting the kind of life a future child
may have. Bonnie Steinbock and Ron McClamrock propose that prospec-
tive parents “should ask themselves, ‘What kind of life is my child likely
to have?’” Even if “the child’s life, while miserable, is not so awful that
he or she will long for death,” no loving parent can or should want that
for their offspring (1994, 17, 18). Even if a person prefers life over non-
existence, she or he may still have been wronged by being brought into
existence (Steinbock and McClamrock 1994, 19). A truly good parent, a
virtuous parent, wants her or his child to flourish.
Yet in many cases the child’s potential quality of life is difficult to
predict. We cannot always say in advance what the likelihood of suffer-
ing is; indeed, many of the problems children experience may be entirely
unanticipated and even unpreventable (as, for example, with the kinds of
problems that babies who are unexpectedly premature can experience).
Moreover, we cannot always quantify the amount of pain and suffering
an individual will have in her life, nor can we know in advance how much
happiness and fulfillment she will have and whether that happiness and
fulfillment will, from her perspective, be sufficient to compensate for the
pain and suffering. “Prospective parents will have to base their decision
on such factors as the risk of transmission, the nature and seriousness of
the disease, the availability of ameliorative therapies, the possibility of a
cure, and their ability to provide the child with a good life” (Steinbock
and McClamrock 1994, 21).


The very nature of impairment is a further complicating factor in figuring

out whether there is a responsibility not to procreate when there is a risk
of fetal impairment. Following the World Health Organization (WHO),
I define “impairment” as “a problem in body function or structure.” Im-
pairment is not the same as disability. The WHO defines “disability” as
“a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a
person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives” (2010).
Based on these definitions, an impairment appears to be a condition that
160    Chapter 8

is “biological” in origin, whereas a disability results from the social condi-

tions in which an individual finds herself. If there is no accommodation
for the impairment—a typical example is the absence of ramps and curb
cuts for persons who use wheelchairs—then the person is in effect ren-
dered disabled: she may not be able to use sidewalks without curb cuts or
to enter buildings that lack an entrance ramp.
However, the concept of impairment is in fact more complex than this
simple description suggests. Impairments are not simply biological and
physical in nature because not every variation in “body function or struc-
ture” is a problem, and those that are problems may be problematic not in
themselves but because of attitudes toward or stigmatization or treatment
of them (Tremain 2001). Hence, what constitutes an impairment is in part
socially defined. Bodily variations are in part constituted as impairments
(1) by the numbers who have them, so that a variation that is rare is more
likely to be interpreted as an impairment, and (2) by the specific values
of the culture in which they occur, which will make some characteristics
a problem and others not.
Without too much difficulty, we can imagine a situation where a char-
acteristic that belongs to a small minority and that is currently considered
an impairment in our present culture is instead regarded as just another
human difference. Sophia Isako Wong, for example, envisions a world in
which half the people have Down syndrome and persuasively suggests
that in it “there would be integrated households, educational resources,
public facilities, and political structures.” In this world, “the interaction
between people with [Down syndrome] and those without it would . . .
be seen as essential to the flourishing of the human species” (2002, 102).
Down syndrome as a specific genetic condition is an impairment only
within a particular social environment, the environment in which we hap-
pen to live, where people with Down syndrome are a small minority. The
same might well be true of impairments such as dwarfism and conjoin-
ment: if half of all people had these conditions, the conditions would not
be considered “problems” of function or structure, any more than being
male or being female is. In this alternate world, the built environment and
the culture would treat little people and conjoined twins as normal—for
example, by having public buildings, transportation, and open spaces that
are purposely constructed for persons who are very short or who are con-
joined in various ways.
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    161

Susan Wendell provides an illustration of the way in which some im-

pairments are socially constituted through a society’s particular values.
Some people simply live their lives at a slower, perhaps more placid, per-
haps more reflective tempo than others. But “keeping up” is a normative
requirement of our fast-paced, technologically driven society, and anyone
who has trouble keeping up is effectively rendered impaired, even though
their life tempo would be quite ordinary and acceptable in other cul-
tures. Wendell points out that as the pace of life increases, “everyone who
cannot keep up is urged to take steps (or medications) to increase their
energy, and bodies that were once considered normal are pathologized”
(1996, 90).
Thus, to suppose that impairments are straightforwardly biologically
given and that some infants are simply born with them (or acquire them
through injury later in life) fails to take into account the ways in which
what constitutes an impairment depends on the society in which it exists
and the numbers who share the particular characteristic. What an impair-
ment is can change over time.3 The social nature of many impairments ex-
acerbates the epistemic problems concerning knowledge of whether one’s
child will have an impairment and, if so, what kind of life she will have.
Moreover, an impairment is not necessarily an outright misfortune.
Consider the following example. My uncle, nicknamed “Jack,” who was
my mother’s younger brother and the only boy in a family of four chil-
dren, was born with profound cognitive impairments. Whether the im-
pairments were caused at birth, during gestation, or at conception, no one
knows. After his birth in 1928, my grandmother did something almost
unheard of for the time: she kept her impaired baby at home instead of
following all the doctors’ advice and putting him in an institution, where
he would soon die. As a result, Jack lived a long life, not dying until he
was in his late seventies. During this time, he never learned to speak or-
dinary English, although he communicated with gestures and sounds. He
could never read or write, though he enjoyed making marks on paper.
He was never independent of other adults, though he could feed himself
and take care of his own toileting. He was sharply observant and could
keep track of household items and locate them when they were lost. He
disliked balloons but enjoyed comic books, magazines, television, stuffed
animals, sweet desserts, and being with his parents and sisters. He was
happy, and he often smiled and laughed.
162    Chapter 8

Many people regard impairments as inevitable misfortunes insofar as

such impairments make it difficult or impossible to engage in the kinds
of activities that they would want the option of choosing or of being
available for their children to choose. From that point of view, even if
an impaired person has a very happy life, he is nonetheless thought to
be less fortunate than people who enjoy more diverse opportunities for
But I want to insist that Jack’s life was not a misfortune. It was not
even unfortunate relative to the lives of nonimpaired people. Despite
Jack’s extensive impairments, I cannot think of his life as a tragedy. My
reason for making this claim has to do with our ideas about “major life
activities” and “opportunities.” I want to say that Jack did not miss out
on opportunities. It makes no sense to speak of missing an opportunity to
do x when one is congenitally unable to do x. It makes no sense to speak
of not being able to engage in life activities if those life activities are far
beyond one’s capacity, one’s desire, or even one’s imagination. I think Jack
was a fulfilled individual. His life was not rich in the way that we might
want our lives to be rich, but it was rich in terms of using his abilities and
talents, such as they were.
Of course, I can imagine counterfactual situations in which Jack’s life
would have been a misfortune. If, for example, he had suffered great
physical or psychological pain, then his life would have been a misfor-
tune. But he did not. Or if he had been institutionalized, as the doctors
advised my grandparents, for then he would not have been loved, read to,
talked to, given his favorite foods, or provided with books, magazines,
and television programs. My point is not that impaired people like my
uncle cannot suffer and cannot be disadvantaged and disabled; of course
they can if their environment is bad, their social support weak, or their
health care inadequate. I am not presenting a Pollyannaish view that im-
pairments are never a problem and never cause suffering. My point is sim-
ply that impaired people are not necessarily unfortunate if, for example,
within the scope of what they can do, they are given all the opportunities
that they can take up.4
The situation is quite different if one has the capacity to do x but misses
out on doing it either because of lack of resources in one’s environment or
because of outright oppression or obstacles. Nonimpaired people in the
developing world definitely miss out on opportunities for fulfillment—for
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    163

example, through the acquisition of literacy skills—because they lack the

resources, not the capacities, to engage in many life activities. We tend
not to think of such persons as disabled because they are not impaired.
Yet they are disabled, I would argue, in the sense that their society does
not provide them with the means to do what they are capable of. That is,
one can be disabled without being impaired, just as one can be impaired
without being disabled.
Thus, having an impairment does not inevitably make one’s life less
fulfilling. My uncle probably had less unhappiness, much less frustration,
and more fulfillment than his older sister, my mother, whose frustrations
came from growing up in a social context where girls were not expected
to go to university or have a career but instead were expected to become
wives and mothers. My mother had no impairments, yet she was, relative
to her high innate capacities, more disabled than my uncle. In that respect,
she was like millions, perhaps billions, of nonimpaired people all over the
world whose opportunities are foreclosed not by their own embodiment,
but by the world in which they find themselves.
The import of these autobiographical observations is this: a fetus with
an impairment is not inevitably doomed to become a person who suf-
fers, who has an unfulfilling life, or who cannot flourish within society.
Whether an impairment has that effect depends both on the impairment
itself (some impairments may cause pain that is ongoing whatever the
circumstances and cannot be fully relieved) and on the society into which
the child is born. The first-person anthology Defiant Birth: Women Who
Resist Medical Eugenics (Reist 2006) documents the individual experi-
ences of women who were pressured to abort their pregnancies. They
were made to feel guilty for gestating and birthing their infants who had
Down syndrome (Schiltz 2006, 189) or dwarfism (Whitaker 2006, 214).
Given what I have said about impairments and illustrated with the case
of Jack, I cannot state categorically that these women ought not to have
procreated, for, as it turned out, those children’s impairments were not
misfortunes either for the children themselves or for their families.
There is, then, a significant moral difference between (1) the imaginary
cases of Jane and Agnes, who deliberately or negligently conceive a being
that has impairments, and (2) refusing to abort a being that turns out
after diagnosis to have impairments that were not deliberately or negli-
gently created. The actions of Jane and Agnes, unusual and implausible
164    Chapter 8

as they may be, are clearly morally unjustified. They know what they are
doing, they know the risks to the fetus of illness, suffering, or early death,
and they go ahead and conceive anyway. For several reasons, however, I
am reluctant to say that a woman carrying an impaired fetus is always
morally required to abort or that she is always morally wrong not to
abort. First, as my previous arguments have shown, a person who has
an impairment will not necessarily suffer or experience an unfortunate
life because of it. The greater the evidence that the person will suffer,
the greater the responsibility to abort; the less the evidence that the per-
son will suffer, then the lower is the responsibility to abort. Whether he
does suffer or become disabled will depend in part on the nature of the
impairment, but also in part on the society in which he lives and the per-
sons who care for him; the woman is entitled—indeed, obligated—to take
both of these factors into account when determining whether to continue
the pregnancy. Second, when a woman knows or has strong evidence to
believe that her future infant will have an impairment, is educating herself
about and preparing herself for what that impairment might entail, and
wants to birth the infant, then she arguably has made a moral commit-
ment to the future infant. She is embarking upon a relationship with her
future child.5 In such a case (and assuming that the child will not suffer),
the moral requirement to abort is lower. Hence, women do not always
have a moral obligation to abort fetuses with impairments.6

Attitudes toward Persons with Impairments

People sometimes express eugenic concerns about the collective effects on

the human gene pool of the procreation of individuals with illnesses or
impairments. Others worry about the alleged costs “to society” in terms
of greater expenses for health care, education, accommodation, and long-
term care if individuals who are chronically ill or impaired continue to be
born. For these reasons, some might argue that there is a responsibility
not to procreate when the future child will be ill or impaired.
Both these worries are in part about empirical matters and cannot
merely be assumed to be true. Will there possibly be a distinct effect on
the genetic heritage of humankind if people procreate individuals with
chronic illness or impairments? Will social costs be significantly increased
if people with illnesses and impairments continue to be born? Where is
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    165

the evidence? But it is also striking that Western society has not collec-
tively worried about the effects on the gene pool or the potential social
costs that are incurred by reducing maternal and infant mortality or com-
bating severe disease via vaccinations, antibiotics, and improved medical
care. All of these latter measures are highly desirable and progressive, yet
they arguably affect the human gene pool by enabling many people to
survive who would otherwise have died and thus perhaps permitting the
perpetuation of genes that might have “died out.” And those measures
also increase social costs by requiring better and better care for more and
more people who now survive instead of dying. Thus, eugenic worries
and concerns about social costs appear to be highly selective, and that
selectivity is morally dubious.
No one is advocating that human beings deliberately perpetuate genes
that cause inevitable suffering or that prospective parents intentionally
create fetuses with impairments. That is precisely why the cases of Agnes
and Jane are so improbable. But unless we are prepared to abandon many
of the most important medical advances of the past two centuries, we
should not agonize about the supposed costs of caring for and supporting
people who are born with chronic illnesses or impairments but instead
help to create the resources necessary for caring for them as well as for
disease prevention and cures. And rather than fretting about the supposed
future of the human gene pool, we should be concerned about promoting
healthy, flourishing lives for all.
Indeed, in that regard a legitimate problem arises in the debate about
the moral justification of creating children with diseases or impairments.
We arguably have a responsibility not to act in such a way as to dispar-
age the lives of people with impairments or diseases or to assume that
the lives of persons with impairments or diseases are not worth living.
The so-called expressivist argument articulates the worry that the more
common the practice becomes of preventing the births of persons with
impairments (especially prevention that involves prenatal diagnosis and
abortion), the more likely it will be that prejudice against and oppression
of persons with impairments will increase. The idea is that material mea-
sures to reduce the birth of people with impairments will give the message
that persons with impairments should not exist: their existence should
have been prevented.
166    Chapter 8

Rebecca Bennett, for example, raises the question of how it is pos-

sible to justify the apparent belief that there should be fewer people with
impairments. Given that this claim is “not usually couched in terms of
resource allocation (i.e. that the impaired will be more expensive to cater
for)” (2008, 267), and assuming that persons with impairments find their
lives worthwhile, then, she says, the claim appears to assume that im-
paired people simply have lower moral value than those without impair-
ments (271) and that a world without impaired people would be better
than a world with them. We wouldn’t be justified in making such a claim
about any other group of people; it seems morally unjustified to apply it
to people with impairments.
The objection involves in part an empirical claim about the possibility
that the mistreatment of persons with impairments will grow as a result
of the supposed message sent by the prevention of the birth of persons
with impairments. However, in the past, when contraception was rather
ineffective and abortion mostly unavailable in North America, persons
with impairments were often treated as shameful, hidden from society,
and provided with little care and almost no education. Today, in societ-
ies where abortion for fetal impairment is widely available, there is no
evidence that the situation of persons with impairments is getting worse.
Indeed, there are growing efforts in the West to respond helpfully and
supportively to people with impairments, improve their health care, pro-
vide appropriate and stimulating education, and create social environ-
ments and practices that are inclusive of them. This is not to say that the
situation for persons with impairments is without problems or that no
improvement is possible. Much more work certainly can and must be
done, not just to “accommodate” but to welcome persons with impair-
ments in all aspects of human life. Nevertheless, it appears that increasing
methods and tolerance for avoiding or preventing the birth of persons
with impairments is not correlated with increasing intolerance for per-
sons with impairments. The objection is not borne out by the evidence.
Norvin Richards gives a related argument about the alleged moral
problems in choosing not to procreate children with chronic illness or
impairments. In a paper entitled, with deliberate irony, “Lives No One
Should Have to Live,” he argues that when prospective parents consider
whether to create a child or not, they should ponder the “authority” a
potential child would have over his life if he were to exist (2010, 466):
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    167

Prospective parents go wrong . . . when they pay no attention to the fact that their
child would be someone who would come to have the ability to make her own
decisions about her life, and decide not to create her because her life would not
be worth living, based on their sense of what that life would be like. . . . That is
to act as if the experiences were all there would be to her life, as if she would not
also be someone who would come to lead that life but only someone who would
suffer it, and thus as if they were contemplating a creature whose life would not
be hers to judge. (469)

Richards’s argument manifests respect for persons with impairments,

who often say, “The fact that you think you would not want our lives
does not mean that we do not want our lives; nor does it mean that we are
wrong to do so.” There is, however, a problem with Richards’s approach.
His argument implies that a concern for quality of life can very seldom
be a legitimate reason for not having a child, provided that the child will
someday reach a state in which he will be able to evaluate the value of his
life—unless there were “some other form of concern for him [that] was
more important than paying him this respect [of being allowed to judge
the quality of his own life]” (2010, 473).
However, the concern for what the child’s life will be like is not just
a consideration of that life in some implausibly atomistic way, as if the
child’s existence can be considered in isolation from his social environ-
ment. Instead, it is a concern for the child’s life in the context of his re-
lationships to his parent or parents and to other members of the family
and the broader society of which they all are a part. Much depends on
whether the woman and her partner, if any, have both the ability and the
commitment to care well and appropriately for a child that may be born
with the impairment. The moral justification of choosing not to create a
child with illness or impairment is not in every case a simple function of
the condition of the child’s body only; it is also a function of the poten-
tial parent’s own capacities and limitations and the social context that
the parents and child must inhabit. The potential parents, especially the
potential mother, are entitled to decide how much they are capable of
handling and whether and to what extent they can properly care for and
raise a child with congenital illness or impairment. Hence, a decision not
to procreate such a child does not necessarily reflect disrespect for the
prospective child’s future judgment that his life is worthwhile; instead, the
decision is at least in part an expression of the parents’ judgment about
their own material, physical, and psychological capacities.
168    Chapter 8

Moreover, to say that someone should not have been born with im-
pairments is not to malign that person, to regret his existence, or to say
that his life is not worth living. Recall Velleman’s distinction, described in
chapter 7, between assessing a person, assessing the event of his coming
into existence, and assessing the act of creating him. We can consistently
say that it may have been a mistake for parents to have a particular child
while still “rejoicing in his [the child’s] existence” (2005, 364). As an anal-
ogy, think of the situation when someone is seriously injured, perhaps
in a fire or an earthquake, and sustains long-term injuries. Our reaction
usually has at least two facets: sorrow and empathy for the person’s suf-
fering as well as regret (sometimes even anger) that he has been subjected
to a painful and harmful event. What we don’t feel is a desire for the
person not to exist; nor do we make that judgment. We may well wish
that steps could have been taken to protect the person from the injurious
event or to prevent its occurrence, but we don’t—unless his suffering is
severe and unremitting—think the person is without value or his life not
worth living.
My conclusion is that human beings have a general moral responsibil-
ity of nonmaleficence to avoid deliberately creating offspring who they
know will experience severe suffering. We ought not to harm deliberately
or negligently (for example, through serious drug or alcohol use) a fetus
that will be brought to term. Ignorance of the likelihood that a fetus will
be impaired or have a congenital disease is not always a mitigating fac-
tor in one’s responsibility of nonmaleficence. However, there are genu-
ine epistemic barriers to knowing whether a fetus will have a particular
condition and how that condition will affect the life of the person whom
the fetus will become. An impairment may cause suffering and be a mis-
fortune, but in some cases it does not and is not. Hence, women do not
always have an obligation to abort fetuses with impairments, especially
when they have developed a relationship with and a commitment to the
fetus and the person it will come and have taken steps to prepare for the
future child’s life. At the same time, the choice to abort because of fetal
impairment or disease is morally defensible.
Thus, there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer to the question whether
the prospect of fetal impairment or illness creates an obligation not to
procreate. Sometimes it does, as I have shown, and sometimes it does not.
Whether there is a responsibility not to procreate when there is a risk of
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    169

illness or impairment in the offspring is not just a function of the physical

condition of the fetus. It is also strongly affected by the characteristics of
the parents and of the culture in which they live.

Prospective Parents with Impairments

Some people believe that individuals with impairments of their own have
a moral obligation not to procreate. As Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds
points out, “Even in this day and age there are still people, particularly in
the medical profession, who actually believe that disabled people should
not have children” (2006, 249). Someone might hold such a position,
first, because she or he believes that the person with impairments will
pass on the impairment. I already discussed the moral significance of po-
tential fetal impairment in the previous section. Not all offspring with im-
pairments are born to parents with impairments, and not all parents with
impairments give birth to offspring with impairments. The mere fact that
a potential parent has an impairment does not necessarily tell us much, if
anything, about what the health of her infant will be. Moreover, the mere
fact that an infant has an impairment does not always tell us much, if any-
thing, about what the child’s life will be like because not all impairments
are misfortunes. The real issue has to do with the parents’ wellness, in
particular the potential mother’s capacity to sustain a healthy pregnancy.
Second, someone might hold that impaired persons should not pro-
create on the grounds that they are supposedly not able to care for the
child. But impairments are not inevitably incapacitating. A person with
an impairment may well be quite healthy and is likely to have worked out
ways of living her life that enable her to compensate for, learn from, and
flourish with her impairment. Persons with impairments live independent
lives, hold jobs, have warm personal relationships, and care for children.
Moriarty-Simmonds herself is Thalidomide impaired, and her limbs are
radically incomplete. She is successfully raising the child whom she ges-
tated and birthed. She has to make adjustments in how she handles the
child, but her son is thriving.
The question of impaired prospective parents might seem more urgent
when the impairments are cognitive or psychological in nature. Surely,
someone might say, we do not want people with cognitive limitations
or serious psychological problems raising children. But there are always
170    Chapter 8

risks in generalizing across an entire group of people based simply on

their possession of a particular characteristic. After all, there are people
without impairments who do an execrable job of raising children. The is-
sue is not simply whether a potential parent has an impairment. The issue,
as I said in chapter 7, is potential parents’ ability to nurture and care for
children: we have a responsibility not to reproduce if we cannot meet a
high standard of parenting capacity.
Impairments come in a range of severity. Some are so severe as to com-
promise or eliminate an individual’s capacity to care even for herself. Per-
sons with such impairments obviously should not have children, but they
are unlikely to be able to make autonomous choices about their own
procreative behavior. Other impairments, such as Wendell’s example of
individuals who have trouble keeping up with the accelerating pace of
life, are not problems at all until the social environment makes them into
problems; even then, though, a social network can help to compensate.
A person with a minor cognitive impairment, for example, might not be
able to function in a highly technological, fast-paced, overwhelming envi-
ronment, but she might be fine in an environment where she is part of a
network of social support and is not confronted with demands and tasks
that are beyond her capacities.
Some individuals with impairments decide of their own accord not to
have children. Their reasons are sometimes like those of childless persons
without impairments: they have other interests and goals. In other cases
their illness or impairment makes them disinclined to have children; given
that living with their particular condition may take up much of their at-
tention and energy, they are aware that they do not have the physical
stamina or the emotional strength necessary for good child rearing. In
some cases they may be aware that pregnancy will require them to stop
taking a prescription medication that is crucial to their well-being (Casey
2006, 68). People with chronic illness or impairments are—like persons
without impairments—usually in the best position to know what they can
handle and what they are capable of.
At the same time, it is important to be aware of the extent to which
“what one is capable of” can be in part a function of one’s material re-
sources and socioeconomic status. We ought not to condemn impaired
persons who are not wealthy to a moral obligation to childlessness or
to put the burden of refraining from procreation on those who lack the
Illness, Impairment, and the Procreation Decision    171

material resources to care for a child. But it is obviously easier to raise a

child if one is not impoverished. If one has an impairment, it is easier to
raise a child if one has the appropriate social supports.
Thus, the moral question about procreation by persons with impair-
ments is not a matter of the impairment itself, but rather a matter of
what the prospective parent(s) are capable of doing or not doing and of
the social support—from other family members and friends, health-care
resources, the educational system, and accessible housing, shopping, and
employment—that is available. A necessary condition for justified procre-
ation is that persons with impairments, like persons without impairments,
must be more than merely adequate parents. They must have the ability
to care for and raise the children they may create—and not just at a mini-
mal level, so that the children basically stay alive, but at a level at which
the children will develop and flourish. The decision whether to procreate
or not is an individual choice for women and men, but it is inevitably
made within a social framework. Whether there is a moral obligation
not to procreate is contextual: it is not a straightforward derivative of
one’s physical, psychological, or cognitive condition, but rather a com-
plex function of one’s place in a particular society at a particular time.
Overpopulation and Extinction

The discussion in previous chapters has demonstrated and defended sev-

eral ethical principles for procreative choices. First, it is essential to rec-
ognize and respect the reproductive rights described in chapter 2. Human
beings have a right not to reproduce; hence, there is no general obligation
to procreate. Human beings also have a right to reproduce in the negative
or liberty sense—that is, a right not to be interfered with in their procre-
ative behavior and a limited right to reproduce in the positive or welfare
sense. Second, as the discussion in chapter 3 demonstrated, we must keep
in mind the gendered nature of reproduction: procreation requires much
more of women than of men, and this will remain the case even if a safe
and successful form of ectogenesis is developed. One must consider the
material contexts in which people make decisions about procreation and
the social environments in which they will raise their children, not just
hypothetical thought experiments with no connection to the challenges
real people face. Third, as I showed in chapters 4 and 5, most of the
traditional reasons that have been given for having children are weak
and easily defeated. Nonetheless, justified decision making about pro-
creation must be based at least on a consideration of the consequences
of our procreative decisions and in particular of their effects on existing
children and on women. There is no obligation to produce as many chil-
dren as possible, even if doing so will maximize the amount of good in a
particular society. Fourth, it is always wrong to use any person primarily
as a means to an end, and infants, children, and women are particularly
vulnerable to being so used in procreative decisions.
Fifth, as chapter 6 showed, children are neither benefited nor harmed
by coming into existence. Mere existence is not in itself a beneficial
or harmful property. Instead, we must always “look and see” whether
174    Chapter 9

persons are benefited or harmed throughout their existence in order to

know whether it is good or not that they came into existence. Even if a
possible person is likely to have a good life, there is no obligation to any
such hypothetical nonexistent person to bring him or her into existence.
We can distinguish between future people and possible people, the set
of all future people being a subset of the set of all possible people. Future
people are the set of all people who will definitely exist at some point
after the present as a result of our actions and choices. Possible people
are those who might or might not exist, depending on which choices we
make. We are not in a position to know which ones, among all the pos-
sible people, will actually be future people, although we can presumably
make predictions about at least some of them, those who will be our very
near descendants—our grandchildren, perhaps. But possible people do
not have a right to come into existence, and no one is wronged if he or
she is not created. As James Lenman remarks, “No matter what happens,
we can always suppose there to be an infinity of possible individuals who
never get to exist. But it is hard to make much sense of the thought that
this is a bad thing—either for the individuals themselves or otherwise”
(2004b, 139).
Sixth, as chapters 7 and 8 showed, many of the reasons typically prof-
fered to support an obligation not to procreate are not very strong. There
is, for example, no obligation not to reproduce because of failure to fol-
low Julian Savulescu’s Principle of Procreative Beneficence (PPB). Yet it
is easier to justify a decision not to procreate than to justify a decision to
procreate because in the latter case the child’s potential well-being will be
affected. There is a strong moral responsibility to undertake procreation
only if one is very likely to be the kind of parent who will enable a child to
flourish. But sexuality, relationship status, age, and impairment have no
necessary relationship to parental ability. Whether there is a responsibil-
ity not to procreate is strongly dependent on the prospective parent’s or
parents’ environment and social context.
Philosopher Michael Bayles assumes that people always make deci-
sions about whether to have a(nother) child “in isolation” from consid-
eration of the decisions made by other families (1979, 19). In a way, he
is right; an individual or couple planning a family does not ask what the
individual or couple next door will do. But choosing whether to have
children nonetheless is and must be a deeply social decision; it is related
Overpopulation and Extinction    175

to laws, cultural customs, national policy, employment patterns, and the

environment, both human and nonhuman. How one makes a procreative
decision can be significantly affected by the material conditions in which
one is making the choice, and those material conditions include the social
policies of the state in which one lives. The connection between individual
procreative decisions and social context is most clearly apparent with re-
spect to a society’s health-care system and the medical and social services
and resources that are or are not provided—services and resources for
contraception, abortion, sterilizations, prenatal care, birthing, and infant
and mother care, as well as reproductive technologies and treatments for
infertility. You can’t choose to use contraception or to have a hospital
birth if neither is available.
In previous chapters, I examined a variety of different conditions—of
the parents, the siblings, the home environment, and the immediate social
network—that arguably ought to be taken into account in procreative
decisions. In this chapter, I investigate the broadest possible context of
procreative decision making: the significance of planetwide changes in
population size. Procreation is in this respect a global issue. There are two
possibilities, both extremes, that we need to consider: acute overpopula-
tion on the one hand and the threat of the extinction of the human species
on the other. What might our procreative responsibilities be in situations
of overpopulation or impending human extinction?
It might seem that concerns about overpopulation or extinction are
much too big for individuals or couples to take into account in making
their procreative decisions; hence, prospective parents cannot be morally
required to consider them. But what I am trying to do in this book is to
reveal the wide-ranging nature of the moral decision whether to have a
child or not. The decision is not a matter of mere individual preference,
for all procreative decisions affect other people, and many individual
choices collectively have sweeping social implications. It is no longer pos-
sible for human beings, especially in the West, to pretend we all are not
related: international travel, environmental changes, and global resource
extraction, manufacturing, and trade demonstrate that national boundar-
ies count for much less than they once did. We cannot legitimately believe
that our decisions have no consequences or even that our decisions have
only modest consequences. Most people do care about the well-being of
their nation or at least of their town or their neighborhood. Supplied
176    Chapter 9

with information about the effects of unlimited population growth (or,

however unlikely it may seem at this point, the effects of significant popu-
lation decline) and with arguments about the importance of making justi-
fied decisions about procreation, people may be less likely to make such
decisions “in isolation” and more likely to consider the social context in
which they procreate. And so, I argue, they should.

Extreme Overpopulation

In the past in the West, large numbers of children in a single family were
not uncommon, occasionally even as many as 25 (Worth 2002, 127–143,
281–290). These children were presumably not the result of choice but
rather of necessity and inevitability in an environment where reliable con-
traception was unknown, agriculture required many workers, and moral
and religious beliefs supported being fruitful and multiplying.
Today, reality shows depict procreative carelessness in shows such as
I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant and give reason to worry about the pos-
sibility that the citizens of some developed nations, including especially
the most powerful one, are indifferent to population overgrowth. Con-
sider the media attention given to large families. It includes both families
that are large because of the birth of multiple children at once (such as
the Gosselin family in Jon and Kate Plus Eight and its successor Kate
Plus Eight, which are about a family with twins and sextuplets, and the
Hayes family in Table for Twelve, about a family with two sets of twins
and a set of sextuplets) and families that are large because of the birth
of many children serially (the most notorious of which is Nineteen Kids
and Counting, about the Duggar family, the parents of which have set no
limits on the number of children they will “welcome”). We can refer in the
former case to the production of large families synchronically and in the
latter case to the production of large families diachronically. Today, many
people would say that it is morally acceptable to have such large numbers
of children provided the family can sustain them all and do a reasonably
good job of rearing them. I argue that this view is profoundly mistaken.
Worries about global overpopulation and the extreme stress on the
planet’s carrying capacity are familiar news. Jennifer Wise writes, “On a
global level we produce millions more babies each year than we can pos-
sibly care for. According to UNESCO, we allow over 10 million children
Overpopulation and Extinction    177

to die of poverty, war, malaria, and other preventable diseases—every

year” (2006, 128). Indeed, there are more and more human beings on this
planet, but the fertility rate varies from nation to nation, and some areas
are growing much faster than others.
According to the 2008 Revision of the official United Nations population esti-
mates and projections, the world population is projected to . . . surpass 9 billion
people by 2050. . . . Most of the additional 2.3 billion people will enlarge the
population of developing countries, which is projected to rise from 5.6 billion in
2009 to 7.9 billion in 2050, and will be distributed among the population aged
15–59 (1.2 billion) and 60 or over (1.1 billion) because the number of children
under age 15 in developing countries will decrease.
In contrast, the population of the more developed regions is expected to change
minimally, passing from 1.23 billion to 1.28 billion, and would have declined to
1.15 billion were it not for the projected net migration from developing to devel-
oped countries, which is projected to average 2.4 million persons annually from
2009 to 2050. (United Nations 2008, 9)

One reason for the difference in fertility rate between developing and
developed nations is simply that women in developed nations tend to
have more education, and the more education a woman has, the less likely
she is to have children. “Why this is happening is the subject of much
theorizing: educated women delay childbearing until it’s no longer an op-
tion; they refuse to pay what economists call the ‘motherhood premium’
in which the salaries of university-educated women plateau after child-
birth and then drop, while fathers’ incomes are unaffected; they recognize
that raising children is a sacrifice of time, money and freedom they’re not
willing to make; or they simply don’t want to have children and are able
to say no” (Kingston 2009, 39–40). Some researchers point to later mar-
riage, access to better contraception, and reduced poverty as causes of
Western women’s lower fertility rates (Vallely 2008). Moreover, delaying
childbearing stretches out the generations and results in the birth of fewer
people (Dawkins 1989,1 110–111).
It is not controversial that humanity’s long-term goal must be, at the
very least, to achieve a population size compatible with our continued
existence on this planet. But that compatibility must surely be such that
human beings do not merely survive but also thrive—and not just some
of us, but all of us. Given the facts about population size, I leave open
what precisely the immediate population goal should be—whether it is
to bring the population down to a particular size, to reduce the rate of
population growth, or to even out variations in population growth either
178    Chapter 9

geographically or temporally (see O’Neill 1979, 32–33). But what do the

facts about population growth indicate about the ethics of childbearing,
especially within the developed world, the focus of this book? There is an
interesting division of opinion. On the one hand, some express concern
about the relatively low rates of birth in Western nations. For example,
consider the views of Margaret Wente, a Canadian journalist. Writing
about Patricia Rashbrook, the Briton who gave birth at 63 to a baby cre-
ated with a donor egg, Wente writes hyperbolically: “We should kiss this
mother’s feet for making her own contribution to the future of Western
civilization—this is her fourth child—because the demographic curve of
Western civ is not promising, to say the least” (Wente and Eddie 2006,
F7). The Infertility Awareness Association of Canada similarly supports
a demand for public funding of IVF by stating, “Canada needs more ba-
bies” (quoted in Hanck 2009, C2).
On this view, overpopulation is not a problem for the developed coun-
tries; the problem lies in the developing countries. But comments such as
Wente’s are at least incipiently xenophobic because they are posited on
fears about the possibility that North Americans and Europeans are being
outnumbered by those who are not part of “Western civ” (Rashbrook, a
white woman, gave birth to a white child). But if the future of Western
civilization seems threatened by its “demographic curve,” Western coun-
tries can always increase their rates of immigration. Civilization can just
as well be preserved by nonwhites as by whites and by immigrants as by
the native born.
In contrast to Wente, Corinne Maier writes, “It’s not that there are too
many people on the planet—there are just too many rich people. We are
the planet’s freeloaders, and we keep increasing our consumption. . . . If
you live in Europe or America, then having kids is immoral” (2007, 121,
her emphasis). Two physicians, John Guillebaud and Pip Hayes, agree:
Should we now explain to UK couples who plan a family that stopping at two
children, or at least having one less child than first intended, is the simplest and
biggest contribution anyone can make to leaving a habitable planet for our grand-
children? We must not put pressure on people, but by providing information on
the population and the environment, and appropriate contraception for everyone
(and by their own example), doctors should help to bring family size into the
arena of environmental ethics, analogous to avoiding patio heaters and high car-
bon cars. (2008, a576)
Overpopulation and Extinction    179

They are correct: in general, children in developing countries generate

less net cost to the environment than children in developed countries.
Guillebaud and Hayes recognize that planetary capacity is not merely a
matter of how many human beings there are, but how those human be-
ings live their lives. From that point of view, overpopulation is not (just)
a problem for the developing countries; the currently bigger problem lies
in the developed nations.
Guillebaud and Hayes appear to be exhorting physicians to take some
responsibility for fixing that problem, but it’s evident that they also think
their patients—indeed, anyone who is fertile—have a responsibility to lim-
it their procreative behavior. Children are persons, not consumer goods.
But having children and being able to afford them are a luxury—both for
the parent and also for the planet. Because of the dangers of planetary
overload, the responsibility to limit the number of one’s offspring falls on
people living in the developed world.2 It may also fall upon people in the
developing world; I don’t want to rule that out. However, at the very least
it’s a responsibility of people in the West, for several reasons. First, most
of us living in the global West are on average well educated. As a result,
we know (or should know) about the dangers of overpopulation. We col-
lectively are also sufficiently informed to know how to curb our numbers.
Second, we in the West consume far out of proportion to our numbers.
Most of us, based on nothing but the accident of where we were born,
have the privilege of living in what is probably the most comfortable and
luxurious society that has ever existed in human history. Those luxuries
are not free; at the very least, we need to help pay for them by curbing our
fertility. Third, we in the West have the ability—the research, resources,
and technologies—to limit the number of children we have. Fourth, we
in the West do not have the same economic needs for many children that
people elsewhere have (or think they have). Finally, if prosperous west-
erners make a concerted attempt to limit their numbers, then arguments
to citizens of developing nations that they should consider using effective
contraception likewise to limit the numbers of their children will be far
more credible. Hence, whatever citizens of the developing world may de-
cide to do (or may have decided for them by their leaders), we in the de-
veloped world have a moral responsibility to limit our numbers, given the
current threats to planetary carrying capacity posed by overpopulation.
180    Chapter 9

Individuals in the West might wonder why this burden should fall on
them—that is, why a global problem should become theirs to solve. Sure-
ly, they might say, problems of overpopulation must be resolved at the
level of cultures, societies, and states. I agree, but this issue is not a matter
of either/or. Entire societies must take responsibility for curbing popula-
tion growth; decisions must be made and policies enacted on a national
level. Nonetheless, population will not stabilize, let alone decline, without
active decisions being made by individuals. Societies do not have fewer
babies; individuals do.

A Proposal for Procreative Limitation

By how much should individuals and couples limit their procreation?

American philosopher Thomas Young says that the motives behind both
reproduction and overconsumption are “often identical: cultural expecta-
tions, improved status, elevated self-esteem, increased happiness, or an
altruistic desire to share with others” (2001, 185). Hence, Young argues,
if we regard having children as morally permissible, let alone desirable,
then we must say the same thing about “ecogluttony”—that is, increas-
ing one’s own consumption to a level equal to adding to the American
population another human being who will live to eighty (2001, 185–186).
Doing so is clearly wrong. He concludes that because “having even just
one child in an affluent household usually produces environmental im-
pacts comparable to an intuitively unacceptable level of consumption,
resource depletion, and waste,” human procreation is morally wrong in
most cases (2001, 183).3 His arguments are aimed at Americans in par-
ticular rather than at persons in the developing world, whose consump-
tion is a tiny fraction of that of U.S. citizens. Even if one American has just
two children, those children will use huge amounts of resources during
their lives, and they will then probably go on to have children of their
own, compounding the problem. “Two more children . . . in a world with
over six billion people is insignificant; yet most agree that the cumula-
tive effect of a number of people acting that way is, and will continue
to be, disastrous for species diversity, ecosystem preservation, and future
generations,” says Young. The implication is that having any children at
all is likely to be morally wrong: “Since having even just one child in an
Overpopulation and Extinction    181

affluent household usually produces environmental impacts comparable

to what mainstream environmentalists consider to be an intuitively unac-
ceptable level of consumption, resource depletion, and waste, they should
also oppose human reproduction (in most cases)” (2001, 185, 182).
I have argued throughout this book that citizens of developed nations
have a responsibility to see procreation as a moral issue and to evalu-
ate their reasons for reproducing. I agree with Young that environmental
degradation and overpopulation behoove all of us to limit the numbers
of offspring we create.4 However, I disagree with Young’s idea that west-
erners (at least those who care about our outsize environmental impact)
should give up procreation altogether.
Given the centrality of childbearing and child rearing to human ex-
istence, an obligation not to have any children at all would be a huge
sacrifice, one that is too much to expect of anyone who wants to have
children. Moreover, people are not likely to adhere to such an obligation,
not only because it would be so difficult in the first place (given how
much some people value procreation), but because it would most likely
be violated in some instances, thereby lowering their own motivation and
drastically increasing resentment. It would also be hard to undertake such
an obligation knowing that once the population was sufficiently reduced,
people in the future would no longer have to adhere to it. In addition, un-
likely as it is, if large numbers of people did not have children at all, then
a sizable gap in the population would develop that might create serious
problems within a few decades as a result of lack of workers (unless adop-
tion from the developing world were undertaken on a massive scale). For
all these reasons, I suggest both that people cannot be expected to accept
an obligation to have no children and that there is no such obligation.
Perhaps, however, in the spirit of Young’s proposal we should consider
a moral obligation to have only one child per couple (the legally mandat-
ed requirement for most couples in China). Although such an obligation
would not face the insuperable difficulties of an obligation to have none,
it would still create major problems, some of which would be similar to
the problems of an obligation to have none. Once again, limiting procre-
ation to such a degree might be a major hardship for many. People are not
likely to adhere to such an obligation; some would likely violate it, there-
by reducing potentially compliant individuals’ motivation. It would also
182    Chapter 9

be hard to undertake such an obligation knowing that, if it is successful,

then in the future people would not have to make such sacrifices.
In addition, I suggest that a further problem with the one-child-per-
couple obligation is that it implicitly negates one person in the couple. If a
couple has two children, however, there is a child for each one—not in the
sense that each raises only one child, but in the sense that each individual
has replaced himself or herself. By contrast, a moral rule of only one child
per couple says, in effect, “You ought not to replace yourself.” (Perhaps
it would also carry the message “You do not deserve to be replaced.”)
Such an obligation would also incur hardships for single people seeking
to procreate, who would violate the obligation unless they were in some
way paired with another person who does not have a child.
There are also important questions about the likely results of raising
a nation of children who have no sibling relationships at all. Not all sib-
ling relationships are positive, but there is plenty to be learned from such
relationships. In China, the one-child policy is in effect a long-term social
experiment on a grand scale. Although it is good not to have families so
large that the children are overlooked or taken for granted, it is also good
not to have so few offspring around at any given time that most of the
next generation lacks familial peers and cannot learn from experience
and observation how to relate to and care for babies and other children
in the family.
Even more worrying, in nations where there are strong preferences for
children of one sex/gender (usually boys) rather than the other, the one-
child policy leads to high rates of abortion for sex selection and tragically
high frequencies of neglect, abandonment, and infanticide of females. In
China, since the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979, substantial
numbers of girls and women are simply “missing” (Ebenstein 2010), and
the proportion of males to females is very high. We cannot assume that
Western nations are so free of sexism as not to be motivated by prefer-
ences for children of one sex over children of the other; the preference for
the sex of offspring might be exacerbated by an obligation to have only
one child per couple. And unless the nation’s social safety net is highly
developed, a one-child-per-couple arrangement puts elderly people into
a potentially precarious position because almost every adult will eventu-
ally have to care for two aging parents. Even when eldercare is social-
ized, there may not be enough young workers to support very elderly
Overpopulation and Extinction    183

citizens (MacKinnon 2009, A12). For all of these reasons, then, an obliga-
tion to have only one child is at most supererogatory and unlikely to be
It instead makes more sense to say that every individual adult has a
moral responsibility to limit himself or herself to procreative replacement
only. The idea of the two-child family is not, of course, a new one; it
was advocated at many times during the twentieth century. What may
be somewhat novel, however, is to think of procreation limits in terms of
one child per adult person, whether the person is single, in a heterosexual
relationship, or in a same-sex relationship.5 I am of course not saying that
people must replace themselves; if they choose not to have a child at all,
they have done nothing morally wrong and in fact are contributing to
population reduction. Nor, given what I said in chapter 2 on reproduc-
tive rights, am I suggesting that anyone is somehow owed a child or that
anyone has a moral right to a baby. Nor am I advocating the violation
of people’s liberty right to reproduce: I am not arguing for social con-
straints on or interference in people’s procreative behavior or for sanc-
tions against those who produce a large number of children. I am simply
saying that we should consider it morally justifiable for every individual,
whether in a relationship or not, to have one biologically related child; it
would then be permissible for a couple to have two. (However, they could
presumably increase the size of their family by adoption, fostering, or the
formation of blended or communal families—that is, any approach that
involves the inclusion in the familial group of children who already exist.)
This responsibility to have no more than one child each is easily justi-
fied. All persons get to (try to) have a child of “their own,” if they want
one, and the value of every adult is implicitly endorsed through the fact
that each one is allowed to reproduce herself or himself. Such a respon-
sibility implies that every person is sufficiently valuable as to be worth
replacing (even though a one-child-per-person morality will eventually
result in population decline, given that some people will have no children
and some couples will choose to have only one). Because one child each is
already close to the reproductive norm in many developed countries, it is
more likely to be accepted and acted upon. In addition, for those couples
for whom the sex/gender of the offspring matters (whether such a prefer-
ence is rational or fair or not), there would be two opportunities to have
the kind of child they want.6 Finally, “one child per person” is not the
184    Chapter 9

same as “two children per couple.” “One child per person” is preferable
because it is not based on a sexist and heterosexist notion that women
must necessarily be in a couple and that every couple must consist of a
male and a female. “One child per person” recognizes the possibility that
a single woman might procreate, as might two women in a committed

Criticisms of the One-Child-Per-Person Responsibility

Proposing a moral responsibility to have no more than one child each is

likely to provoke many objections. Bear in mind that I am not suggest-
ing that this reproductive limit be legally required or enforceable or that
its violation be legally punishable. I am also doubtful that social policies
should be put in place to enforce it—for example, by providing baby
bonuses only for the first two children or by offering no more maternity
leaves after the second child. Such policies would simply make children—
in particular, those born third and later—and their mothers suffer. Such
a consequence is insupportable. So my proposal is not to embed the “one
adult/one offspring” suggestion in state laws or policies but simply to
argue that it is a matter of individual moral responsibility. I’m saying
that having children ought to be undertaken within a commitment to
self-limitation and to the moral justification of one’s choices. Individuals
should be thinking about why they want children and about their reasons
for the number that they want to have.
A citizen of the West might protest that of course she can have three or
four children because so many others in her society have only one or even
none. But such an argument may not be sustainable. Unless extensive state
regulation of procreation is introduced—regulation that would infringe
on people’s reproductive rights and violate their privacy—there is no way
of ensuring against the possibility that others might reason likewise. That
is, if one couple may have four children because another has none, or a
second couple may have three children because another has only one,
we would then have a series of procreative choices that are perilously
dependent on very specific decisions by other couples. And although I
do believe that we need to take others into consideration when we make
procreative decisions, we cannot count on others’ reduced fertility as a
way of exempting ourselves from a responsibility to limit our own. If
Overpopulation and Extinction    185

everyone reasoned similarly, then no one would adopt the one-child-each

responsibility; in effect, all persons would be handing procreative limits
on to others while exempting themselves.
I can imagine that once the global population stabilizes at a level that
is compatible with the planet’s carrying capacity and flourishing by all,
individuals might be able to justify somewhat larger families, both be-
cause the dangers of overpopulation would no longer be so imminent or
overwhelming and because by then human society would have evinced a
long-term pattern of reduced fertility on which individuals might plau-
sibly depend for planning a larger number of children. We are nowhere
near that point yet, and although fertility levels are declining in most of
the developed world, they are declining at varying rates. I would argue
that they have not been low for long enough to justify one’s having more
children simply on the supposed grounds that others can be counted on
to have fewer.
In response to arguments like mine, Clifford Orwin, a Canadian po-
litical scientist, is skeptical. He writes of a study that calculates that the
environmental impact of each new child “is almost 20 times greater than
whatever energy the parent could save by all other righteous choices com-
bined.” In response, he says, “I’m sorry, learned researchers, but my calcu-
lus is different from yours. Looking at my own two children, now young
adults, I find myself completely unrepentant. . . . I wish I could have had
more.” He adds to those who are trying to decide whether to have chil-
dren, “Go ahead, have kids, the more the merrier. God has commanded it,
and nature’s cool with it” (2009, A11). Obviously no one expects Orwin
to regret the births of his two children or even to reevaluate the choice to
have them, but his failure to acknowledge any environmental responsibil-
ity is reprehensible.
Though Scott Wisor takes the problems more seriously, he nonetheless
argues that people in the West have no particular obligation to reduce
the size of their family for the sake of environmental concerns. He agrees
that “affluent individuals” have obligations to prevent environmental de-
struction and even, where possible, to reverse past environmental harms.
But he thinks that limiting family size in order to prevent environmental
harm is a form of “consumer-driven activism” that will not be success-
ful in changing the world by changing individual behavior. The reasons,
according to Wisor, are that consumers lack adequate knowledge about
186    Chapter 9

their environmental impact; they therefore make irresponsible choices.

Some simply choose not to make environmentally responsible decisions
because they don’t care. In addition, consumer activism inappropriately
“relieves pressure” on states and institutions to lead the end to environ-
mental degradation (2009, 26, 27, 28). Environmental activism requires
changing institutions, not changing individual actions.
I agree with most of Wisor’s claims, but they are not sufficient to obvi-
ate an obligation to confine procreation to one child per person.7 Even if
dealing with environmental destruction is a state responsibility, it is also
an individual responsibility: a person who lives in a nation that is taking
active steps to conserve resources does not thereby have the right to be
profligate with those resources. If some individuals are ignorant about
what steps to take to reduce their environmental impact, then the state
has a responsibility to educate them, and they may have a responsibility
to educate themselves.
Wisor also claims that “in some cases increased population sizes have
actually led to increases in environmental stewardship and preservation
of natural resources” (2009, 28). Even if there were some truth to this
factual claim, it would be a risky foundation for allowing populations
to increase and for not recognizing a responsibility to limit one’s procre-
ative behavior. He acknowledges that one U.S. citizen consumes as much
energy as 900 Nepalis: all the more reason, then, for North Americans
to acknowledge a responsibility to limit the number of new citizens they
Wisor thinks that even though it is practically and morally justified to
consider whether one can care and provide for additional children, one
should not make procreative decisions based on the children’s potential
impact “on their community and world” (2009, 29). He’s right insofar as
it would be problematic to have a child for the sake of the child’s effects
on society and the environment. In chapter 5, I argued against making
purely consequentialist assessments of children’s value. But those who are
deeply concerned about the effects of population growth, especially in
the wasteful West, are arguing instead that people should choose not to
have many children in order to avoid those children’s potential effects on
society and the environment. There is a difference. The former would be
a case of creating and using children for ends that are neither chosen by
the children nor necessarily tied to the children’s own interests and goals;
Overpopulation and Extinction    187

it would be wrong. The latter is a case of choosing to limit one’s behav-

ior and have fewer offspring in order not only to protect environmental
resources in general but also to try to produce a world that will be far
better for the offspring one does have. Whereas Wisor thinks it is morally
appropriate for reproduction to be motivated by “the desire to have a
large, fun, supportive family” (2009, 29, his emphasis), I am arguing that
there is something morally problematic, perhaps morally wrong, about
having a large family in the wasteful, consumerist West. Although there
may be ways by which one can reduce a family’s environmental footprint,
every additional child nonetheless produces a substantial additional cost
to planetary resources—a cost that is likely to persist for eighty or more
Some people would reject any moral limit on numbers of offspring on
the basis of the deontological arguments discussed in chapter 4. These
arguments include passing on one’s name or property, having a genetic
link to children, keeping a promise, and fulfilling duties to other family
members. As I argued there, those reasons for having children are for the
most part weak and uncompelling. But even if they seem compelling to
some people and hence appear to provide urgent reasons for procreation,
the opportunity to have one child or two with a partner can and should
satisfy people’s desires to “do their duty” in the way that deontologists
understand it.
The one deontological reason that might not be satisfied by the re-
sponsibility to have no more than one child per person arises from the
teachings of some fundamentalist religions that expect women to treat the
production of lots of babies as a woman’s purpose. Some fundamental-
ists, such as Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, would say that they cannot
be expected to curb their numbers because they are morally committed
to following the word of God. Indeed, the Duggars state repeatedly that
they want as many children as God sends them, and on their Web site they
proclaim, “We believe that each child is a special gift from God and we
are thankful to Him for each one” (Duggar and Duggar 2011).
Enthusiastic viewers also point out that the Duggar children are seem-
ingly happy and healthy.8 The family is prosperous, at least in part be-
cause of substantial revenues from their reality television appearances.
This very large family seems not to be a result of the victimization of the
wife;9 it is evident that Michelle Duggar knows what she is doing, and
188    Chapter 9

her husband, Jim Bob Duggar, says he leaves it up to her whether to have
more children. Moreover, we can’t say that children are entitled to be part
of a small family, and there may be some advantages to being a member
of a large one (provided there are sufficient resources for them to live
well), such as a ready source of playmates and plenty of personal support.
What, then, is the moral problem with a large family such as the Duggars?
To say that the children are well cared for is an inadequate defense of
the adult Duggars’ procreative behavior. If each Duggar child in turn has
19 children, then there will be 361 grandchildren. If each of those chil-
dren has 19 children, there will be 6,859 great-grandchildren. The next
generation would number 130,321. Just as worrying, the Duggars may
well serve as role models and inspiration to at least some other prospec-
tive parents. As research psychologist Michael Ashton says (ironically),
“In a few years we will all be Duggars” (personal communication, July
2010). With the example set by the Duggars, there would be no hope of
population stabilization, let alone reduction. Despite their claims to “buy
used and save the difference,” the family presumably consumes resources
at a rate more than five times that of the average family in North Amer-
ica. And, frankly, it is highly doubtful that the genes of Michelle and Jim
Bob Duggar (or the genes of any human being at all) are so valuable as to
need or deserve to be so often reproduced.
The justification for having many children that is derived from God’s
alleged command does not exempt individuals from reevaluating their
procreative behavior in light of the dangers of overpopulation. The argu-
ment I am making is not about compelling people to toe certain reproduc-
tive lines, nor is it about forcing morality on anyone. I simply suggest that
even religious believers who think God mandates repeated procreation
have a responsibility to consider whether in light of the social, environ-
mental, and even personal costs of overpopulation it really is morally ac-
ceptable to have more than two children. I have no illusions that religious
fundamentalists are likely to give up their beliefs. But if some human be-
ings claim to know in some detail what is God’s will, then they can also
reconsider whether there are good grounds for believing that their God
wants them to procreate (and consume) to a degree that degrades the
planet and destroys the environment that makes human life possible. The
simple moral question—and one that religious believers can and should
Overpopulation and Extinction    189

ask themselves—is this: Assuming that God’s command to procreate is

directed at everyone, is it possible for every (heterosexual) couple to fol-
low God’s supposed mandate and have 5, 10, 15, or 20 children (Bob
Cadman, personal communication, December 2009)? The obvious an-
swer is no; the outcome is not sustainable. It is wrong to consider oneself
a moral exception, and scripture provides no basis for supposing that
some parents are more entitled than others to procreate. Large families
are parasitical on small ones in the sense that some families’ lower fertil-
ity rate gives parents of large families the illusion that their procreative
choices are not environmentally costly.
There is, however, one further counterargument to my one-child-per-
adult proposal that is different from any of those discussed so far. This
counterargument is intended to show that adopting a moral responsibil-
ity to limit procreation to one child per adult would in fact be ineffective
and even counterproductive to the aim of containing population growth.
Ashton asks us to imagine a scenario in which some people accept a re-
sponsibility to limit their procreation:
The more socially responsible people end up having fewer children, on average,
than do the people who don’t have much sense of social responsibility. Therefore,
to the extent that “social responsibility” is transmitted from parents to children,
then the next generation will be somewhat lower in social responsibility than the
current generation. (Note that it doesn’t matter if social responsibility is mainly
transmitted genetically or through social learning [culture].)
The next generation will therefore have a smaller proportion of people who
will voluntarily have fewer children (or who will do anything else) out of a sense
of social responsibility. This cycle then repeats, so that there are fewer socially re-
sponsible people with each generation. (Note that the total population might not
decline at all, if the less socially responsible people have many children.) This in
turn means a lower likelihood of avoiding the kinds of “commons dilemmas” that
were supposed to be solved by telling people to have fewer children.
. . . [T]his process might be slow: It depends on (a) the extent to which the more
socially responsible people have fewer children and (b) the extent to which social
responsibility is transmitted from parents to children. If either (a) or (b) is not
strong, then the problem will be relatively small. Now, based on what we know
about the transmission of traits and attitudes, (b) is probably pretty substantial,
though far from a perfect link. I think (a) is likely to be smaller, so there might
not be a problem in the next few generations. But the more “successful” one is in
encouraging socially responsible people to have only one child or no children at
all, the less socially responsible the next generation will be, and the less successful
one will be in getting that next generation to have fewer children. So the policy
defeats itself. (email message to the author, August 17, 2009)10
190    Chapter 9

Perhaps the social supports widely found in developed countries make

Ashton’s predicted outcome more likely. Richard Dawkins writes that “in
nature” at least or in times when there is no state support for children
or families, “individuals who have too many children are penalized, not
because the whole population goes extinct, but simply because fewer of
their children survive. Genes for having too many children are just not
passed on to the next generation in large numbers, because few of the
children bearing these genes reach adulthood” (1989, 117). But with the
advent of good medical care, free public education, and at least minimal
welfare payments and unemployment insurance, the offspring of indi-
viduals who have many children are quite likely to survive, along with the
tendency to have more children.
Ashton’s argument depends on a number of empirical predictions. To
assess the argument’s strength adequately, it would be necessary to test its
predictions by widely (and successfully) promulgating the idea that there
is a moral responsibility to limit the number of one’s children and then
seeing whether the adoption of the moral responsibility is, as predicted,
self-defeating. This informal experiment is worth trying both because
we need to know whether an attempt at individual ethical regulation of
population growth is effective and because by publicizing the concept
of a moral duty to limit procreation, we would be taking the action that
seems morally justified by the problems facing our planet. The evidence
that people can change in this way is that they have—the number of ba-
bies born has declined precipitously in the West over the past century,
although probably not primarily out of apprehension of global overpopu-
lation. Concern for the planet is both a simple and a significant reason for
people to evaluate carefully their procreative goals, but if Ashton’s predic-
tion turns out to be correct, then appeals to immediate personal benefit
rather than to planetary preservation might be the most effective way of
persuading people to change their reproductive behavior.
Wisor less plausibly uses an argument similar to Ashton’s to assert that
“individuals concerned about the environment” ought to have even more
children rather than fewer on the grounds that their influence can then
counterbalance the effects of people who don’t care about the environ-
ment (2009, 29). It just seems counterproductive and rhetorically implau-
sible, if not crazy, to promote having more children in an effort to reduce
the impact of population growth on the environment. One cannot count
Overpopulation and Extinction    191

on one’s children sharing one’s own views, especially when they are seem-
ingly contradicted by one’s own behavior. It seems just as likely that a
child born into a large family will reject her parents’ environmentalism—
or at the very least regard it as a manifestation of bad faith. (Of course,
that being so, we might also anticipate that the offspring of persons indif-
ferent to planetary depredation might turn out to be environmentalists.)
If having more children is counterproductive, then at least at the level
of individual ethics there is no alternative for those concerned about the
future of the planet than to limit their own procreation. If we have a re-
sponsibility to limit our consumption and our environmental footprint,
then surely we also have a responsibility to limit the birth of new human
beings who will otherwise contribute both to that consumption and to
the despoliation of our planetary home.11

The Extinction of the Human Species

Having discussed our moral responsibilities in the face of drastic popu-

lation growth, I now want to consider the other extreme: the possible
extinction of the human species. Some people predict that the world pop-
ulation, despite its frightening growth, will eventually reach a maximum
and then decline (Vallely 2008). According to Statistics Canada, 17.1 per-
cent of Canadian women and 18.3 percent of Canadian men age 30 to 34
said in 2006 that they did not plan to have any children at all. According
to the U.S. National Center of Health Statistics, “The number of Ameri-
can women of childbearing age who define themselves as ‘child-free’ rose
sharply in the past generation: 6.2 per cent of women in 2002 between
the ages of 15 and 44 reported that they don’t expect to have children in
their lifetime, up from 4.9 per cent in 1982” (statistics cited in Kingston
2009, 38). The fear is much bruited that declining populations mean an
insufficiency of workers to maintain a nation’s gross domestic product or
even to support a dependent aging population.
Elisabeth Nickson writes, “Japan’s drop [in birthrate] is catastroph-
ic: at 1.25 births per woman, Japan is at the rate at which demogra-
phers believe a cataclysmic downward spiral is inevitable. Korea? Even
worse at 1.08 births per woman. Russia? Dying.[12] And don’t even men-
tion Europe. Demographers project that the European Union will lose
between 24 million and 40 million people during each coming decade
192    Chapter 9

unless fertility is markedly raised. . . . Nor will immigration help. It takes

less than a generation for an immigrant family in Canada to accept local
norms and stop reproducing” (2006, A21).
If these tendencies were to continue far into the future and spread to
even more nations, we as a species might face the prospect of extinction.
What, if anything, would such a prospect imply about our procreative

The Value of the Human Species

In the face of threatened extinction, it might seem that fertile human be-
ings would have a moral obligation to reproduce. According to Torbjörn
Tännsjö, for example, we do have such responsibilities:
Even if Adam and Eve were leading fantastic lives in the Garden of Eden, the
world was not perfect. Not only could the world have been made better through
mere addition of people, if God had bothered to create more of our kind. Even at
some cost, Adam and Eve themselves should replenish the earth.
The very idea of a universe without sentient life strikes us as terrible. A world
with human life, and other kinds of sentient life on Earth only, is better than a
universe with no life at all. (2004, 231)

The question is whether human beings truly are such assets to the uni-
verse (or even to the solar system or just the planet) as to make it impera-
tive to stave off human extinction.
Some people see having children as in effect our species’ vote of confi-
dence in itself. They see procreation as an expression of hope and of our
belief in our collective value. For example, Vangie Bergum writes, “In the
act of conceiving a child . . . we show confidence in the world as a good
place to be. . . . We see the world as a world for children and are prepared
to conceive a child. Or it may be the converse: In deciding on children we
come to accept the world as a place for children and begin to take respon-
sibility for it in a different way” (1997, 32). Rex Sayers similarly writes,
“Having children is an act of great hope, an affirmation that no matter
how chaotic and tragic the world seems to be, it is still worth living in.
That no matter how much we adults screw things up, what we leave be-
hind will be a little better than what we started with. That we trust our
children to do even better than we’ve done” (2007, C3).
A skeptic would find it easy to be critical of these ideas. It is hard to
have confidence in the procreative plans of someone who counts himself
Overpopulation and Extinction    193

among people who “screw things up.” Taken literally as claims about re-
ality, Bergum’s and Sayers’s statements are founded on faith rather than
on anything more solid. It is not clear that they have good reasons to have
hope or that the planet is in fact a good place to be. In fact, they beg the
question at issue by taking it for granted that there are positive answers to
the question of whether human existence matters and the human species
deserves to be perpetuated.
One possible explanation of why our existence matters and is worth
perpetuating points to the human capacity for happiness. Thus, John Les-
lie writes that if you did not see a world of very happy people, with only
a small number of unhappy persons, as “remarkably good,” “then you’d
have fairly strong grounds for thinking it right to annihilate the human
race in some quick and painless fashion.” “Just as a planet of utterly mis-
erable people could be worse than nothing, so also a planet of happy
people could be better than nothing. If a philosopher had a chance to
create the first planet simply by lifting a finger, then prima facie the fin-
ger oughtn’t to be lifted. . . . Similarly with the second planet. Assuming
that creating it wouldn’t produce harm elsewhere, it ought to be created.”
Leslie writes of there being a “moral need,” wherever possible, to replace
miserable people with happy people. He asks “what our duty would be in
a situation where absolutely nothing could be done to help the miserable,
no matter how hard we tried,” and he draws an analogy to “miserable”
individuals who are born ill or impaired and cannot be helped. His impli-
cation is that because such individuals cannot be changed, one must in-
stead go on and create new ones who will not be ill or impaired and hence
will be happy. Indeed, once the science and technology are developed, he
postulates that humanity might have “a very strong duty” to spread right
across our galaxy (1996, 181, 178, 182, 183).
Because no amount of “finger lifting” will in reality create and sus-
tain human populations, the human situation is of course much more
complex than Leslie’s hypothesis acknowledges. Similar to the writings
of other philosophers on procreation that we have already encountered,
Leslie’s otherwise rather engaging thought experiments consistently ig-
nore women’s role, for they never mention the people who will inevitably
have the job of carrying out the purported duty to create happy people.
Contrary to Leslie, we can recognize that there may be a “moral need,”
wherever possible, to try to assist miserable people to become happy, but
194    Chapter 9

without admitting a “moral need” to create new happy people. To sup-

pose there is a “moral need” to create new happy people is implicitly to
endorse a version of the Repugnant Conclusion. Recall that, according to
the Repugnant Conclusion, “compared with the existence of very many
people—say, ten billion—all of whom have a very high quality of life,
there must be some much larger number of people whose existence, if
other things are equal, would be better, even though these people would
have lives that are barely worth living” (Parfit 2004, 10). Leslie’s version
would have us go on creating human beings and spreading them through-
out the galaxy (a monumental task), provided they are happy. As I argued
in chapter 5, however, for a number of reasons (including supererogation,
obligations to one’s existing children, and respect for women and their
autonomy), women do not have any obligation to create happy people.
A woman with one happy child does not have a responsibility to have a
second child who, if created, will also be happy.
Hence, the fact that some people are happy or have the potential to
be is not a sufficient reason to require that we prevent the extinction
of humanity. Our situation is very different from God’s (imagined) posi-
tion, which I described in chapter 6. If the work of procreation and rear-
ing were the product of God’s effortless magic, then the absence of good
(happy people) would be bad, and we might readily assent to the creation
of entire planetfuls of happy people. In the real world, however, to assume
that a galaxy of happy people must be created is to put unconscionable
requirements on women, who are the ones who must do the reproductive
labor, for wherever women become more educated and more prosperous,
they choose to have fewer children, not more.
Another possible answer to the question why our existence is worth
perpetuating might be that sheer human life has intrinsic value.13 Some
writers have claimed that because of the value of existence itself, we have
a moral responsibility to bring as many human beings into existence as
possible. Sahin Aksoy, for example, says that human existence “is essen-
tial and prerequisite to everything good or bad.” He adds, “Every life is
worth living, even if it is worse than some other lives, if the only alter-
native is non-existence.” “Life and existence is [sic] always better than
non-existence,” and “therefore, it is irrational and immoral to ‘sentence’
someone to non-existence while you have the chance to bring them into
life and existence” (2004, 382, 383).
Overpopulation and Extinction    195

Postulating that human life has intrinsic value can be morally useful
and can serve as a basis for important moral limits on how human be-
ings may be treated, both at the level of individuals and at the level of
communities and even nations. If human life is assumed to have intrinsic
value, then it is never acceptable to enslave any human beings, to torture
them, to assault them, or to treat them in any way that suggests that
their life is not valuable.14 At the same time, there is danger in the idea of
the intrinsic worth of human life if it leads—as Aksoy so enthusiastically
concludes—to another version of the Repugnant Conclusion. Aksoy ap-
pears to believe that human beings have an ethereal existence, in which
they wait for their potential parents to call them into the material world.
In Aksoy’s formulation, the Repugnant Conclusion is changed from its
original formulation as a duty to maximize the good and becomes a duty
to maximize sheer human life. From his perspective, we have a respon-
sibility to create indefinitely many human beings not because we have a
utilitarian duty to create as much good as possible, but because we have
a duty to create as much human existence as possible.
This conclusion is, if anything, even more repugnant than the utilitarian
duty. On utilitarian grounds, there would at least be some foreseeable limit
to the number of human beings we should create because the sheer num-
bers of human beings would eventually start to prevent any good whatso-
ever from being achievable. But if human life itself is intrinsically valuable
and must be produced for that reason only, then we might have a duty to
go on procreating without limit and without regard to the condition of the
human beings created. There would be nothing about the intrinsic value of
human life to put an end to the sheer numbers that instantiate it.
Indeed, Michael N. Mautner, for one, believes that there should be no
limits. He writes, “The shared drive for self-propagation can . . . define a
human purpose: To safeguard and perpetuate life. To this effect, we can
expand life and seek to advance it into a controlling force in nature.” He
estimates that the resources of our solar system “can support, at high
standards, human populations of thousands of trillions, more than one
hundred thousand times the Earth’s present population.” What he calls
“panbiotic ethics” supports the further multiplication of human beings in
“billions of solar systems” (2009, 436, 437).
James Lenman draws from a hypothesis about intrinsic value a very
different and more plausible conclusion. He focuses not, like Aksoy, on
196    Chapter 9

the alleged intrinsic value of human life, but on the alleged intrinsic value
of individual human beings. And he says that even if human beings are
intrinsically valuable, that fact does not imply that we must create more
human beings. He uses an analogy with white rhinoceroses. Lenman sug-
gests that even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that white rhinos
are intrinsically valuable, it does not follow that it is better that there be
more rhinos and that they should be spread all over the planet. No one
laments the fact that there are no white rhinos in Scotland, for example.
And just as the intrinsic value of individual white rhinos does not imply
that there should be more of them spread out over the planet at any given
time, it also does not imply that there should be more of them spread out
through time. “If it is unclear how it would make things better to stretch
out, synchronically, in a single generation, the numbers of white rhinos, it
is unclear why it should make things better to stretch them out diachron-
ically by having more generations.” We need not regret that there are no
white rhinos in Scotland, and we also need not regret that there may be
no white rhinos a million years from now (2004b, 138–139).
In other words, contrary to what Aksoy and Mautner appear to believe,
the fact (if it is a fact) that y is intrinsically valuable does not imply that
there should be more of y, whether simultaneously or serially. Even if pos-
sible human beings will be intrinsically valuable, we do not have a duty to
bring them into existence. The very fact that they are only possible shows
that we are not being unjust or ungenerous by failing to create them. As a
result, even if we assume that human life or human beings themselves are
intrinsically valuable, it does not follow that the extinction of our species
would be bad and that we are morally obliged to prevent it.15


Humanity is unique—yet so is every species. In that respect, humanity is

paradoxically not special. Indeed, we have come to feel a pang of regret
when we learn that a species has become extinct under our watch, and
many of us feel alarm when informed that members of a certain species
have been reduced to a critically minimal number. If there is a duty to
prevent our own extinction on grounds of our species’ uniqueness, then
there is arguably a duty to protect other species and try to prevent their
extinction. However, in staving off our own extinction, we would also
Overpopulation and Extinction    197

have to take into account the effects of maintaining human beings on the
perpetuation of members of other species.
Why is species uniqueness an argument for its preservation? Perhaps a
species is worth preserving simply because of its unique contribution to
biodiversity, the variety of forms of life that exist on our planet. Mautner
goes so far as to suggest that “new lines of evolution, rich biodiversity”
(2009, 437) justify the spread of human beings not just in our own solar
system, but throughout the universe. It is disconcerting to suppose that
our mere contribution to biodiversity might be the reason to prevent our
own extinction. In order for this to be the case, however, we would have
to have grounds for believing either that biodiversity itself is intrinsically
valuable or that biodiversity is instrumentally valuable. Both possibilities
raise problems.
It is, first, unpersuasive to think of biodiversity as being intrinsically
valuable; to borrow a term from Benatar, it is far from clear that this
feature of our world has value sub specie aeternitatis (Benatar 2006,
199). Sheer variety is not necessarily good in itself—dangers, diseases,
pollutants, and crimes are not made better by being diverse. A variety of
anything is valuable usually because of what it causes or facilitates. A va-
riety of sports allows people with different abilities and interests to obtain
physical exercise. A variety of Web sites allows one to learn more and to
compare the information provided. Biodiversity is likely to be valuable
not for its own sake, but because it contributes to the health of the natural
environment and thus to the preservation of species.
But notice, now, that this attempt to show that human extinction
would be bad and should be resisted culminates in circularity. We ten-
tatively attributed value to the survival of our own species just because
it contributes to biodiversity—the sheer variety of species in a particular
area or on the planet as a whole. And we value biodiversity because bio-
diversity supports the survival of species (presumably including our own).
Species survival and biodiversity mutually support each other, but if the
value of each is justified by reference to the other, we have no additional,
external reason to value either one. Nor is there is an independent reason
to resist our own extinction.
Moreover, although our species is genetically unique and its disappear-
ance would by definition reduce biodiversity, our continued existence,
with its destructive effects on the planet, tends to hasten the extinction
198    Chapter 9

of multiple other species and thus to diminish biodiversity. In that re-

spect, members of other species might very well be better off without
us: “our own extinction would very likely do more good than harm to
natural biodiversity” (Lenman 2004b, 140). The International Union for
Conservation of Nature, which describes itself as the world’s oldest and
largest global and environmental organization, reports that 17,291 out
of 47,677 assessed species are threatened with extinction. Those threat-
ened include “21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known
amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, . . . 28 percent of reptiles, 37
percent of freshwater fishes, 70 percent of plants, [and] 35 percent of
invertebrates” (2009).
The implacable fact is that the planet and its other inhabitants got
along fine without human beings in the distant past and probably will
again in the distant future. Trees, plants, insects, birds, and wild animals
will not miss us; indeed, most of them are likely to thrive in our absence.
Some domestic animals might miss us, although there is evidence that
domestic animals such as cats and dogs are able to survive in a feral
existence without human beings if they have to. In fact, although some
individual companion animals might grieve their lost relationship to hu-
man beings, many domestic animals would be better off because they
would avoid the hardships of factory farming and the torments of the
slaughterhouse. Cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs might have more dif-
ficulty fending for themselves, but they would suffer less without us be-
cause they would no longer be raised in mostly execrable conditions and
killed by human beings for food. Some people have argued to me that
if, for whatever reason, human beings ceased to create and factory-farm
immense numbers of pigs, sheep, cows and chickens, then many possible
animals would never have the opportunity to live. That is, of course, true,
provided we always remember that a merely possible animal is not an
animal at all. Without human beings, there would be billions fewer food
animals, but because there are no ethereal cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs
waiting in the metaphysical wings of the planetary drama to be brought
onstage into existence, the real reduction in suffering by domestic animals
would be significant and the losses (in terms of animals never born) non-
existent. In short, the extinction of human beings would be a hardship
for very few other beings. Thus, the human species’ purported contribu-
tion to biodiversity fails as an argument against human extinction both
Overpopulation and Extinction    199

because the argument is circular and because the human species’ presence
on the planet does not contribute to biodiversity at all; instead, it com-
promises biodiversity.16

Do Human Beings Matter?

We saw earlier that a moral duty to resist human extinction cannot be

founded on the basis of our collective happiness or the alleged intrinsic
value of human life; the familiar problems with the Repugnant Conclu-
sion defeat these arguments. I have also shown that a moral duty to resist
human extinction cannot be founded on humanity’s uniqueness or sup-
posed contribution to biodiversity.
Some people think it must be human beings’ special characteristics
that make us valuable. When we fear human extinction, what we fear is
the extinguishment of certain important capacities that are definitive of
human beings. These capacities include rationality or, more broadly, intel-
ligence and creativity; the use of language or, more broadly, the ability to
communicate; self-awareness, the ability to see oneself as an individual
and to contemplate one’s past and future; and moral agency, the ability to
make deliberate choices to do good or to cause harm.
Of course, human history suggests we should be careful not to over-
estimate the extent and value of human abilities because doing so often
leads to human and environmental domination and indifference to the
well-being of members of other species (and even to certain groups of our
own species) apart from their capacity to enhance our own well-being.
Moreover, these characteristics are not necessarily unique to human be-
ings. As Young points out, whatever traits one chooses as valuable will
exclude some human beings if pitched too high or include nonhuman
beings if not pitched so high (2001, 189). Not all human beings possess
these traits—neither fetuses nor persons in a persistent vegetative state are
self-conscious or rational, for example. In addition, however, many non-
human beings possess intelligence and the capacity to communicate, and
although self-awareness and moral agency may be unusual among species
on this planet, we cannot assume that there are no beings elsewhere in the
galaxy—let alone the universe—that also have these abilities. We may, by
a combination of cunning and brute force, be at the top of the food chain
on our own planet, but we can’t assume we’d be at the top elsewhere.
200    Chapter 9

Centuries of religious dogma have claimed that we are a superior species,

but the universe is a big place, and the conditions for development of
intelligent self-conscious beings may very well exist elsewhere. So there
should be no illusions that human extinction would be bad because it
would necessarily be the end of rationality, self-awareness, communica-
tion, and moral agency.17
However, it might be objected that it is not so much the sheer exercise
of rationality, self-awareness, communication, and moral agency that is
important about human beings. Rather, it is the products of these capaci-
ties: the distinct culture (or range of cultures) of and the myriad creations
by human beings—scientific, artistic, intellectual, educational, athletic,
moral—are what matter.
I agree wholeheartedly that despite all the errors we human beings
have made and all the disasters and cruelty we have perpetrated, our
cultures are worth preserving. The question, however, is whether the ex-
istence of human beings in perpetuity is necessary in order to preserve
these cultures. Some of my own undergraduate students claim not to be
distressed at the prospect of human extinction—first, because they believe
human beings are highly destructive of other species, and, second, because
they believe that human beings are subject to evolution just like members
of other species on this planet. We can imagine that (with a great deal of
luck) there may be one or more successor species to human beings. These
successor species, let us hope and expect, will preserve all of our cultures.
If we can be reasonably confident about such a future, is it enough to
reconcile us to extinction? Should it reconcile us? I suspect it definitely is
not and perhaps should not. The reason is that cultures are living process-
es, not just historical artifacts. We want to go on as a species because we
are deeply engaged in all our collective enterprises—aesthetic, scientific,
philosophical, religious, athletic, entrepreneurial, and so on. They are not
merely of historic value, and they are much bigger than any one or even
any subset of us. Those enterprises are immeasurably important to us;
they help to define and express who we are as a species. We resist our own
extinction because we matter to ourselves.
The issue whether human extinction is a bad thing, an outcome that we
should actively resist, arises in the context of this book because it raises
questions about the morality of our procreative choices: If we were facing
species extinction, would we then have a special moral responsibility to
Overpopulation and Extinction    201

procreate in order to perpetuate our own kind? If all fertile human be-
ings collectively and gradually decided not to reproduce, ought they to be
urged to change their minds—or even be compelled to?
I have not found adequate reasons to show that the extinction of the
human species—provided it is voluntary—would inevitably be a bad
thing. We human beings have a sentimental attachment to our own spe-
cies and cultures. We matter to ourselves, of course, but it is in no way
evident that humanity matters to anyone else. If we were to disappear,
members of other species would soon forget us and get along without us.
In the absence of convincing evidence for a Supreme Being or even for the
existence of beings elsewhere in the galaxy that are aware of us, it seems
that human beings do not have value for anyone else in the universe. And
if we cease to matter to ourselves, we have no duty to continue to breed
just for the sake of facilitating more breeding. Because human beings are
valuable only from the perspective of human beings, then when human
beings cease to exist, our value will cease to exist.
Human beings, like any other species, are part of the natural order and
with no more entitlement than any other to go on existing forever. All
other species, to our knowledge, eventually go extinct. Just as individual
immortality is both undesirable and impossible (Overall 2003), so also
species immortality is both undesirable and impossible. As Lenman sensi-
bly points out, the question is not whether the human species will become
extinct; “the Second Law of Thermodynamics [resulting in the maximiza-
tion of entropy] will get us in the end in the fantastically unlikely event
that nothing else does first” (2004b, 137).
All of this is not to say that we human beings should either hasten our
extinction or be indifferent to it. I think we do have a duty to prevent any
extinction that is aimed at through unilateral acts, such as nuclear attack
or biological terrorism, that involve deliberately destructive behavior by a
minority resulting in massive suffering and deaths. We would avoid such
extinction not by putting moral pressure on women to reproduce, but
by preventing and guarding against nuclear attacks, biological terrorism,
and other globally destructive acts. Human beings do not want to suffer,
and they do not want to die prematurely; that is reason enough not to
hasten our own extinction.
But if the human population drastically declines as a collective result
of many individual procreative decisions not to reproduce, I don’t think
202    Chapter 9

people should be compelled to procreate, nor would they be morally ob-

ligated to do so. It is a great hardship to be required to reproduce when
doing so is not part of one’s life plan. In such a situation, women are
expected to acquiesce to being used as reproductive machines. And even
when women are not compelled by force or by law to procreate, unwill-
ing reproductive labor that is undertaken only out of a sense of obligation
is a kind of enslavement. The woman’s body is taken over by another
living entity not as part of her own project, but in response to what is
perceived as an overriding moral requirement.18 An individual might feel
it is virtuous to contribute to continuing the human community in a case
of impending gradual extinction, but she would not be wrong if she chose
not to.
I conclude that we do not have a moral obligation to procreate simply
in order to prevent our own extinction. We might even have an obligation
not to stave off extinction if it turns out that our posterity will not have
lives that are worth living (Lenman 2004b, 148). That is, we ought not to
go on reproducing if we might somehow know that the future for mem-
bers of our species will be unalterably bleak and unremittingly miserable.
Although we cannot know this future for sure, our apparent commit-
ment to the despoliation of our planet makes it more likely than not that
our descendants will have a very hard time—so hard that extinction may
someday look preferable. I, however, prefer to hope that when the human
species becomes extinct, it will be for a potentially much more positive
reason: that we will have gradually evolved into another species. I hope,
too, that despite the undeniable talents and abilities of our kind, we will
be replaced by a species with considerably greater intellectual, psycho-
logical, and moral capacities than those that human beings now possess.
Procreation, Values, and Identity

In this book, I have presented no general formula for handling the eth-
ics of choosing to have children; there cannot be one. In cases of ethical
ambiguity, there are often no obvious, easy, mechanical answers. We can
only attempt to figure out which purported solutions don’t work, and we
can assess the weight of the evidence on different sides. To suppose ethics
is or can be much more than this is to ask for what we cannot have.
When we are trying to decide what is right and wrong, what we have
a responsibility to do, and what we ought to avoid, all we have to work
with is the reality around us—multiple societies of diverse human be-
ings, all of them situated in a nonhuman material world with many other
living and in some cases sentient beings. We get better at ethics as we
learn more about those with whom we interact. For example, a better
understanding of the harms of sexism and racism and how to respond
to them has developed as human beings have learned more about gender
and race as well as about gendered and racialized people (that is to say,
about everyone—but especially those who have been victimized by virtue
of their gendering and racialization). People (and other sentient beings)
suffer, and they do not like to suffer. This we know. People are capable of
joy, happiness, pleasure, well-being, satisfaction, achievement, and fulfill-
ment. This we also know. That’s our main evidence collectively for any
ethical conclusions we may draw. Inadequate ethics arises, at least in part,
from inadequate knowledge.
Hence, instead of standing back at a great distance from the procre-
ation issue and pronouncing upon it, as a number of philosophers (mostly
male) have tended to do, we must engage in close examination of the
various issues and arguments, examining the strengths and weaknesses of
different claims, and in particular remaining very aware that it is women
204    Chapter 10

who gestate and deliver babies, not machines, not society, not men, and
not simply some gender-unspecified “reproducers.” That is what I have
attempted to do in the previous nine chapters.
Despite my own religious doubts, I began this book with a biblical
quotation: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I
have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose
life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). When
this quotation is hijacked by the antiabortion movement, it is dangerous
to women. But as guidance to people wondering whether to procreate, it
may be inspiring.
People sometimes ask me whether I would advise them to have chil-
dren. I often say, “Don’t miss it!” My response sounds excessively prona-
talist, but I would argue that it is not. I certainly do not say it to people
who have told me or of whom I know that they have already decided
not to have children; nor do I say it to someone who has not raised the
procreation question with me. I do not actively go around promoting
procreation. But in response to people who have thought about it, who
are weighing their choices, who are imagining life as a parent and life as
a nonparent, I usually encourage them to take the plunge.
Given all that I have said so far in this book, readers might wonder
how I can possibly defend such advice. Earlier chapters demonstrated
that it is not easy to find sound arguments to justify the individual choice
to procreate. Reproductive rights are certainly not enough on their own
to make having children something not to be missed. Both the deonto-
logical and consequentialist arguments for procreation are weak and in-
adequate. In addition, the sheer giving of life is not self-justifying, and
creating a child does not automatically make one a good person. We can-
not say that choosing to have a child is vindicated merely by the fact that
the child now exists. Children are not brought into the world for their
own sake because they do not preexist their conception. Coming into
existence can turn out to be a benefit or a burden, depending on how the
child’s life goes. Indeed, as I showed in chapters 7 and 8, there are some
situations in which it is difficult to justify procreation. And the dangers
of overpopulation and planetary despoliation imply that we should be
especially cautious about making more babies. It is not at all clear that the
extinction of the human species would be so bad as to morally obligate
fertile human beings to procreate if they did not want to. If we all have
Procreation, Values, and Identity    205

children just so that they can have children and their children can have
children, ad infinitum, we are rooted in a Sisyphean process that appears
to have no foundation and no clear value.

Choosing the Nonrational: The Wager

Is there any other way to justify choosing to be a parent? Some might

think the approach to the question up to this point is misguided. Deciding
to have or not to have a child is not simply a matter of counting up the
pluses and subtracting the minuses of parenthood. As Elizabeth Harman
remarks, “Reasons interact in many different ways. While it is sometimes
useful to talk of one reason being stronger than another, it by no means
follows that all reasons have strengths that can be compared, or that rea-
sons simply add up with the stronger one winning out” (2004, 109 n. 8).
One possibility, then, is that the “why have children?” decision ought not
to be approached as a question of rational decision making.
Matti Häyry advises against having children on the grounds that there
is simply a chance that the child will suffer, and “it is morally wrong to
cause avoidable suffering to other people” (2004, 378). (But, of course,
with most things we do there is a chance of causing suffering to someone.)
To Häyry, procreation is both immoral and irrational. In response, Re-
becca Bennett agrees that having children is irrational: “In most cases we
choose to bring to birth children on the basis of unquantifiable and un-
predictable ideas of what they will bring to our lives and the lives of those
around us” (2004, 379). Yet she does believe that most human lives are
worth living.1 She writes, “Many of what are considered to be the most
valuable experiences in life, such as love, sex, dancing, creating children,
recreational drug/alcohol use, etc., may have little or no rational justifica-
tion . . . but life without such irrational pleasures and freedoms for many
would be unbearable” (2004, 379).
Bennett’s list is uneven: it is hard to think of recreational drug use as on
a par with creating children or drinking alcohol as in the same category
as love. Recreational drug and alcohol use may indeed be irrational if it
is self-destructive, but feeling love or going dancing doesn’t seem irratio-
nal at all: they may very well be entirely consistent with one’s interests,
purposes, and well-being. Perhaps Bennett ought to be making the point
that certain activities are nonrational rather than irrational. That is, some
206    Chapter 10

activities, such as falling in love or dancing all night, may be worthwhile,

but choosing them is not simply the result of reasoning about what is
most logical to do in one’s life. At the same time, they are neither foolish
nor unfounded. Maybe, as Bennett assumes, procreation is similar in that
way to falling in love. Vangie Bergum writes, “The choice to mother is not
a strictly rational one, where one can just add up all the items on one side
of the ledger, compare it to the other side, and get a definitive answer”:
“Instead of the deliberate, rational making of a decision, which sounds
like a technical process, there is a sense that deciding on a child is like
a coming to a decision that may not be rational at all. Perhaps it is like
Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’—a realization that having a child opens one
to life’s possibilities—which can only be taken with ‘fear and trembling’”
(1997, 18, 30).
Is procreation nonrational—not susceptible to a straightforward tally
of pros and cons—but at the same time not necessarily irrational? The
seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal provides one model for
thinking about a major life choice in a situation where, he believes, the
relevant truth cannot be discerned via logical reasoning.
Pascal regards the decision whether to believe in God or not as non-
rational. Choosing whether to believe in God is instead, he argues, like
making a wager. One cannot know whether God exists or not; the very
nature of the question is, according to Pascal, such that it does not ad-
mit of arguments. Reason cannot decide the question of what to believe
([1662] 1966, 150). But whether to believe in God or not is nonetheless
a momentous and life-changing decision. Therefore, in choosing whether
to believe in God or not, according to Pascal, one is in the metaphorical
position of making a bet on a race whose outcome one does not know.
But one must decide, says Pascal; it is not optional. That is, unlike the
situation of a horse race, one cannot simply walk away from the wager.
In religion, the choice not to decide is in itself a choice not to believe in
God. Therefore, because reason cannot decide the issue, one should wager
on the basis of an assessment of the well-being that will be yielded if one
outcome or the other turns out to be correct. Pascal’s idea is that if God
exists, eternal life is the reward for belief in God, and eternal suffering is
the punishment for failure to believe. By contrast, if God does not exist,
then one wins and loses nothing. Given the stakes, one should therefore
wager that God exists because one thereby becomes eligible for an eternal
Procreation, Values, and Identity    207

life (and avoids eternal punishment) if one’s wager is correct, whereas

there is no comparable payoff if one wagers that God does not exist and
one is correct (Pascal [1662] 1966, 151).
In certain ways, the decision about whether to procreate or not is simi-
lar to the decision whether to believe in God or not, as Pascal describes
it. First, the outcome of the “why have children?” decision is unknown.
By the nature of the situation, one cannot know what it is like to have
one’s own child unless and until one has a child. Nor, despite all the ad-
vances in prenatal screening and diagnosis, is it possible to know much
about the child herself—what she will be like, how she will develop, the
state of her health, or what kind of person she will become. Second, it ap-
pears difficult to make the choice on the basis of weighing the reasons for
and against procreation. Although there are plenty of arguments on both
sides, many people find that an assessment of the supposed evidence is
inadequate to make the choice. Third, as in the case of whether to believe
in God or not, one cannot merely sit on the fence with respect to procre-
ation. If one decides not to decide, then the decision is made—either by
not having a child at all or by allowing “nature” to take its course and
running the risk of becoming pregnant or making another person preg-
nant without intending to.
Given these similarities, should the decision whether to procreate also
be treated as a Pascalian wager? It is important to note that, despite Pas-
cal’s disclaimer, his wager is in a certain way based on logical thought.
The wager is admittedly not concerned with the truth value of belief in
God’s existence, for Pascal thought that truth with respect to theism is
not attainable. Nor is it based on the epistemic or moral justification of
believing or not believing in God, for justification is precisely what we
cannot have, according to Pascal. Pascal instead is looking for the option
that is best for the individual person confronting the wager; he recom-
mends the choice that in his view is most likely to produce the biggest
payoff. So if we use a comparable process with respect to procreation, we
must weigh not the reasons for and against reproducing, but rather the
potential payoff of the procreation bet—the “winnings” both from hav-
ing children and from not having children.
The likely payoff for not having children includes greater disposable
income (the money saved by not having children), more leisure, less house-
work (children are messy), more personal freedom, less responsibility,
208    Chapter 10

more spontaneity, less conflict in the relationship with one’s partner, if

any, and fewer worries (about children’s health, safety, education, and
so on). The payoff, however, may also include the possibility of future
regrets if the individual changes her mind, along with (possibly) an un-
fulfilled longing for a child. By contrast, one can assume that having chil-
dren will mean less disposable income, less leisure, more housework, less
personal freedom, more responsibility, less spontaneity, more conflict in
the relationship with one’s partner if one has a partner, and many more
worries. Of course, it may also include the joy and rewards of rearing
one’s children, helping them, interacting with them, and learning with
and from them.
I don’t know whether the choice about procreation is made any clearer
or easier by regarding it as a Pascalian wager. Anyone who chooses to
become a parent either for the love of taking a risk or solely as a gamble
about her own individual well-being may very well be disappointed. Of
course, parenthood can and often does contribute to happiness and well-
being, both one’s own and that of others. Yet, as I pointed out in chapter
5, it also involves a great deal of hard work as well as discomfort, anxiety,
and sacrifice.
But I am more interested in whether it is even legitimate to regard pro-
creation as a wager at all. Consider the following problem. Although Pas-
cal recommends belief in God, he recognizes that people might not simply
be able to believe on demand. He therefore urges his readers to deliber-
ately turn off their rational facilities and “stupefy” their minds in order to
induce and sustain religious belief if they are not otherwise able to believe
([1662] 1966, 152). Yet there is something highly questionable about this
approach to the religious life. It makes belief in God a prudential rather
than a moral or spiritual decision. The individual who accepts the terms
of Pascal’s wager comes to believe in God not because of arguments based
on evidence for God’s existence, not out of a sense of piety, not out of
acquiescence to God’s will, not through revelation, prayer, scriptures, rev-
erence, respect for religious leaders, or awe at creation, but simply out of
an egoistic gamble that believing will pay off infinitely in the afterlife. It
is hard to imagine that a Supreme Being, if there is one, would be pleased
with these methods and motives.
In the decision whether to procreate or not, if the individual’s only con-
cern—on the model of Pascal’s wager—is whether the decision will pay
Procreation, Values, and Identity    209

off personally in the long as well as the short term, then she is similarly
making a merely prudential and self-regarding decision and ignoring the
moral dimensions of the choice. From the very first chapter of this book,
I have argued that deciding whether to procreate is a moral decision and
that it is a moral decision because it affects so many people—not only the
prospective parent(s), but also the prospective child, other family mem-
bers, and other members of the community. Although one is certainly
entitled to take into account the effects of having a child on oneself, if one
decides only on the basis of a gamble about one’s future well-being, then
one is refusing to treat procreation as a fully moral matter.
And that, I suggest, is a mistake—although the potential implications
of the mistake are much greater if one chooses to procreate than if one
does not. One ought not to treat a moral decision as if it were merely a
pragmatic one, a bet that one makes based on one’s chances of winning
personal gains. If we were to ask someone why he is childless, and he said,
“There just wasn’t enough in it for me,” we might not be impressed by
his approach, but we would likely commend him for his honesty and self-
understanding, and we would be glad he did not become a parent. But if
we asked someone else why she became a parent, and she said, “I just took
a gamble that it would pay off better for me personally than being child-
less,” there would be nothing in that reply to give us confidence about her
abilities as a mother or about the nature of her relationship with her child.
Whether to procreate is a life-changing and far-reaching decision; it
ought not to be treated as merely a wager and especially not a wager
about the odds of benefit for oneself. Wagering for or against procreation
fails to handle the issue—or one’s own life—with the respect it deserves.
A life well lived is not just a matter of personal payoff.

The Kind of Beings We Are and What Parenting Is About

Yet when I tell people who seek my advice about having children, “Don’t
miss it!” it sounds as if I’m recommending a Pascalian wager or at the
very least a leap of faith.
That is not at all what I’m advising. Instead, when I advocate parenting
to people who have already thought about it for a long time, I am endors-
ing a particular vision of who we are as human beings and what parent-
ing is about. Throughout this book, I have argued that there is no moral
210    Chapter 10

obligation to have children. But even if there is no obligation to do x, x

may still be a good thing to do. We don’t have an obligation to become
highly educated, but getting as much education as one can manage is
usually a good thing to do. We don’t have an obligation to engage in vol-
unteer activities in our community, but doing so is almost always a good
thing. It is possible that having one or two children may in many cases be
good, even if not morally obligatory—and even if it is hard to justify in
the way in which more straightforward moral decisions are. Perhaps we
should look not only at the prospect of overpopulation or extinction, nor
merely at the reasons people give for and against procreation, but rather
at the meanings people attribute to reproduction and to children and at
the significance of procreation for the kinds of beings that we are.
Imagine a person, Isabella, who does not have children and who com-
mends herself on her environmental sensitivity and her desire not to
overload the planet. Isabella also claims to be a social benefactor, giving
money to support various good causes. Yet Isabella nonetheless leads a
self-centered life, enjoying lots of luxuries, international travel, and the
most-recent model cars, while at the same time being indifferent or even
nasty to her nieces and nephews, the children who play next door, and the
students who pass by on their way to school.
By contrast, consider the case of Carla, who is the mother of three
children. Carla has more children than can be ecologically justified. The
second one was an “accident.” Carla worries about having enough money
to support them all. But Carla loves her children, listens to them, and can
be counted on as a reliable and responsible parent. Carla takes a keen
interest in their education, prepares nutritious meals, and plays with her
kids at the local playground.
I am by no means claiming that either Isabella or Carla is typical. My
point is just this: Carla is arguably at least as good a person as Isabella
and perhaps even better. Isabella’s decision not to procreate does not
automatically make her a good person, given her other characteristics.
Carla’s decision to have more than two children does not make her a bad
person, given her other characteristics. Choosing to have children and
raise them is about the kind of person we want to be and about the kinds
of persons we want there to be on this planet. As a society, we would no
more want to convince good people like Carla never to procreate than we
would want to convince musicians not to make music.
Procreation, Values, and Identity    211

Some people would go further and say that having children is genuine-
ly analogous to making art. Recall from chapter 4 that Rosalind Hurst-
house sees bearing children as “intrinsically worthwhile.” Hursthouse
also says that a woman who has a child “can look upon her children as
her achievements, her works of art, the result of her efforts and suffer-
ing” (1987, 315, her emphasis). Should we see being a parent as valuable
because it is like being an artist?
Creating art is worthwhile, but some of us either can’t do it or are not
interested in it; our strengths and interests lie elsewhere. Human society
is definitely better off for having people who can and do make art, people
who are motivated to do so. But if someone who is artistically talented
nonetheless chooses to be a mountain climber, it seems odd to say that
she is making a moral mistake or that she ought to make art for the ben-
efit of others even if she does not want to and would much prefer to be
exploring the Antarctic. A person with potential gifts for child rearing is
similarly not making a moral error if she nonetheless prefers to be a chef
or an architect.
A healthy pregnancy and delivery are an important achievement, and
successfully raising children is an admirable accomplishment. Nonethe-
less, I am uneasy about seeing children as a product—even a valuable
product such as art. Parenting can go wrong when parents see their off-
spring as objects they can and should mold to suit their own purposes. Of
course, parents must train their children, set rules, and enforce limits. But
a child, unlike a work of art, is a self-conscious, autonomous entity with
her own abilities, preferences, and needs. Children are not property. Chil-
dren are persons, and respect for children both individually and collec-
tively is ethically essential both to society as a whole and to individuals.
As I argued in chapter 4, children should not be treated only or primarily
as a means to the attainment of deontological values such as the perpetu-
ation of lineage, name, and property; the fulfillment of religious, marital,
or familial duties; or the discharge of duties to the state. As I argued in
chapter 5, they should also not be treated only or primarily as a means
to consequentialist goals. Children, like adult women and men, should be
treated as ends that are valuable in themselves. If we ask ourselves “What
are children for?” the most important answer must be that they are for
themselves, not for their parents or for their society.
212    Chapter 10

Thus, children are not artifacts, and parents are not artists. What, then,
makes being a parent valuable? Parenting is a relationship, not a set of
actions directed at an object. The lifetime of parent-child interactions is,
I believe, key to understanding what is good about procreation. Although
the outcome of procreation and child rearing cannot be foreseen—much
can go wrong, children can disappoint, and offspring sometimes delight in
becoming what their parents do not want—what matters is the process of
procreation and parenting, that is, the relationship between parent and off-
spring. In this relationship lies the best reason for choosing to have a child.

The Parent-Child Relationship

Since his arrival, through all the exhaustion and preoccupation, I have grown an-
other part of myself: another whole heart that dwarfs any preexisting organ, this
one the size of [a] sperm whale’s, a brand-new gargantuan muscle, developed by
strange and powerful paternal steroids. It will beat inside me until I die. (Nichols
2006, 145)

Rex Sayers writes, “There is only one real reason to have children, which
is to love them, deeply and madly” (2007, C3). And according to Eliza-
beth Anderson, “Parental love can be understood as a passionate, uncon-
ditional commitment to nurture one’s child, providing it with the care,
affection, and guidance it needs to develop its capacities to maturity”
(quoted in Gibson 1995, 238, emphasis added by Gibson). These state-
ments suggest that the essence of the parent-child relationship is uncondi-
tional love and that the possibility of giving (and usually receiving) pure,
unadulterated, unqualified love provides the best possible reason for hav-
ing a child.
But the idea of unconditional love deserves further examination. In
many ways, it seems genuinely attractive. We all want to be loved, and we
hope that people will continue to love us even when we are irritable, im-
patient, rude, careless, or unkind. We want our parents, our children, our
lovers, and our close friends to overlook our faults and focus on our good
qualities. We want them to cherish us, even—or maybe especially—on our
bad days. The idea of unconditional love implies that we should treasure
the loved one no matter what he or she does and that all behavior, no
matter how abominable, should be forgiven and forgotten.2
The idea of unconditional love is a cultural platitude. Unfortunately,
however, it sets a standard that is almost unattainable. No one except
Procreation, Values, and Identity    213

perhaps a saint or a fully enlightened being can be entirely unmoved by

hateful words and harmful actions directed at oneself. But more impor-
tant philosophically, I suggest that unconditional love is, with only a few
exceptions, not desirable.
The exceptions are people who are not yet or not any longer auton-
omous and hence not responsible for their behavior. Thus, toward an
infant or young child, unconditional love may be an appropriate goal.
One loves one’s baby or toddler through colic, tantrums, diaper changes,
vomiting, and inconsolable wailing—whatever the child may do. But as
the child grows up, behavior that was formerly appropriate and tolerable
becomes much less so. Babyish behavior in a two-year-old is not unex-
pected; in a ten-year-old, though, it becomes a problem. Unless the child
has developmental problems, unconditional love as a response to inap-
propriate behavior is not desirable. Once the child is past six or seven and
is acquiring both autonomy and responsibility for his actions, I suspect
that even the fans of unconditional parental love are doing little more
than paying lip service to the concept. At that point, parental love is not
really unconditional, and, more important, it should not be.
Here is the problem with unconditional love: babies and children do
grow up.3 The idea of having unconditional love for an individual who
is older than six or seven suggests that it does not really matter who the
loved one is. If love for a person is truly unconditional, then it is unrelated
to the loved one himself. According to the ideal of unconditional love, no
matter what someone says or does, no matter who someone is, no mat-
ter what attitudes, beliefs, values, or emotions the person has, the loving
parent is supposed to love him or her. Unconditional love is a god’s-eye
perspective that is independent of the individual’s unique characteristics.
But who the loved one is does matter. Real human love is love for par-
ticular human beings. We love people for who they are. And most people
want to be loved for who they are, not loved in a way that is indifferent
to their particularities. They want their own personal characteristics to
be appreciated. They hope that it is their individual features, values, and
behavior that are lovable. From the parent’s point of view, a child is loved
and lovable precisely because of who the child is.4
There are, then, real limits to unconditional love, especially after ear-
ly childhood, and it seems implausible that adults should have children
in order to have someone to whom they can forever give unconditional
214    Chapter 10

love.5 The parent-child relationship lasts a lifetime, and after early child-
hood unconditional love is no longer appropriate or even possible.
But having said that unconditional love is inappropriate after a certain
point in the child’s life, we are apparently left only with “conditional”
love. Conditional love sounds like a feeble basis for the parent-child rela-
tionship. Must the child, after the age of seven, earn his parent’s love? Is
love the product of a contract?
I suggest there are two kinds of conditional love. One kind is related
to the behavior on some school playgrounds: “If you share your candy
with me, I’ll be your best friend.” This kind of conditional love is what
some parents offer their unfortunate children when they give their kids
the message that they will be loved only if they behave according to the
parents’ standards, if they achieve in school, or if they become outstand-
ing athletes. This kind of conditional love says, “I will love you if you do
what I want, say what I think you should say, and become the kind of
person that I favor.” That kind of love is conditional on the love object’s
conformity to the parent’s demands and decrees.
But another and much better kind of conditional love is the kind that
says, “I love you for who you are; I love you because you are you. I love
you because of what you do, what you say, and what you are becoming.
Your needs, hopes, and choices endear you to me.” I suggest that it is
conditional love in this second sense that makes procreation worthwhile.
This kind of conditional love is conditional on who the child is; it values
the child for what he chooses to be. It is compassionate—it sees the child
realistically, not as a doll to be played with or a pet to be manipulated,
but as a person in his own right. This kind of conditional love is also
forgiving. It accepts that the child is fallible and will make mistakes, as
everyone does. It sees the forest and not only the trees—the long-term
life of the child, not just the headaches and problems of the now. But
this kind of conditional love is not “unconditional” toward the child’s
behavior. This kind of love recognizes that cruelty, dishonesty, manipula-
tiveness, and violence are not to be embraced or loved unconditionally.
Instead, the parent loves the child enough to help the child become a
better person.
This conditional love of a parent for her offspring is different from the
conditional love she may have for another adult, for, unlike most adult–
adult relationships, the parent-child relationship is crucially asymmetrical.
Procreation, Values, and Identity    215

In one way, it is inherently asymmetrical; in another way, it is only contin-

gently asymmetrical.
The parent-child relationship is inherently asymmetrical because the
child never chooses her parents; indeed, she does not choose to come
into existence. By contrast, the parents do choose the child, at least to
the extent that they choose to become parents. Even though the child
cannot be brought into existence for her own sake—that is, to maximize
her interests (because she does not preexist her own conception)—we can
ask whether the child, once born, is wanted by her parents for her own
sake, whether she is valued for herself, not just valued for the benefits
that she may bring to her parents and sibling(s). The developing relation-
ship between parent and child is significantly different from developing a
friendship or other love relationship with another adult. The difference in
procreation is that the parents not only start to build a relationship with
the child but actually create the person with whom they have the relation-
ship. They choose to have their child. Of course, they do not know much
about the child they are choosing to have, only that she will be biologi-
cally related to them, a fact that may foreclose on some characteristics
but also leave open many others. To choose to have a child is, at best,
to choose to love and care for an unknown but related person, a person
whom one will gradually get to know better and better even as that child
goes through all the changes generated by maturing and growing up. This
relationship is different from a connection between two adults or two
children, where in the usual case each one chooses the other, and each one
consents to be in the relationship. Hence, the parent-child relationship is
inherently asymmetrical.
The parent-child relationship is also contingently asymmetrical. In the
beginning and for many years of the child’s life, the child is vulnerable,
dependent, and needy. Without the parents or other responsible adults,
the child cannot survive. By contrast, the parents are more or less self-
sufficient prior to the child’s arrival; the child certainly does not keep
them alive. To choose to have a child is thus to choose to nurture and care
for an initially helpless being—to be a literal life preserver for many years,
committed to helping the child to achieve her own self-sufficiency.
The child’s dependence gradually diminishes; indeed, one of the signs
of good parenting is that it enables the child to become more and more
autonomous. That is why I say that the relationship is also contingently
216    Chapter 10

asymmetrical. In addition, the parent also discovers sooner or later—of-

ten sooner than expected—her own vulnerability in the relationship, the
vulnerability that is her need for the child. If she is breastfeeding, she may
discover it very early on. But whether she breastfeeds or not, her attach-
ment to the child makes her need him, and this fact also applies to lov-
ing fathers. It is a kind of dependence—the sort we have when our own
flourishing is contingent upon another person’s flourishing. The parent is
vulnerable to the child because the parent’s life cannot go well unless the
child’s life goes well.
As the child grows up, and if the relationship works reasonably well,
the parent and child eventually relate to each other as adult equals. They
are not equal because they have the same amount of experience—they
don’t—but rather because they both are self-determining and can con-
tribute to choosing the relationship’s future direction. They are tied to
each other by their shared history, the dependency of love, and the need
for the other’s well-being as a condition for their own well-being. A con-
tingent asymmetry may eventually return to the relationship if the parent
becomes frail, impaired, or ill and needs to depend on the care of her
adult children.
It is this kind of “conditional” love, a love that is both inherently and
contingently asymmetrical and is focused on the child’s true being, that is
the strongest reason for having a child. To become the biological parent
of a child whom one will raise is to create a new relationship: not just
the genetic one, but a psychological, physical, intellectual, and moral one.
The parents seek out a connection to a new human being, a connection
that not only will serve the needs of that new human being but will also
make the parents themselves needy and vulnerable in a way they have
never been before.
Susanne Gibson says something similar: “I hold that reasons for having
a child may be judged morally desirable or undesirable according to the
extent to which they enhance or detract from the possibility of forming a
particular kind of relationship with that child. The goals of this relation-
ship will be many, although one of the most important goals will be to aid
the child in developing a sense of her own value, regardless of her value
to anyone else” (1995, 238). It is, however, a little misleading to speak of
“the goals” of the parent-child relationship. Parents do not form loving re-
lationships with their children only to achieve some outcome farther down
Procreation, Values, and Identity    217

the road. Parents are, of course, vitally interested in and devoted to their
children’s future, but the best reason for having a child is not to produce
an adult or even to create a specific kind of child. To choose to have a child
is to set out to create a relationship, a relationship that gives a particular
meaning to one’s own life and to the life of the being that is created. This
kind of relationship may well have certain goals, but the value of the rela-
tionship is not derived only from its having goals or even from achieving
them. The relationship is valuable for its own sake. The best reason to
have a child is simply the creation of the mutually enriching, mutually en-
hancing love that is the parent-child relationship. In choosing to become a
parent, one sets out to create a relationship, and in a unique way one also
sets out to create the person with whom one has the relationship.


Now why would the creation of a new relationship be the best reason
for having a child? A critic might point out that human beings can and
do create new relationships at any time—we meet potential friends, col-
leagues, and lovers at work, in leisure activities, and even as we go about
ordinary activities such as shopping. We don’t need to have a child in
order to create a new relationship. In fact, the critic might say, having a
child for this reason is selfish6 and places a burden on the child.
I don’t deny that much of this is true. Of course many kinds of relation-
ships are possible, and of course one need not procreate in order to have
new relationships. There is no obligation to procreate, and many people
feel no desire to do so. Moreover, procreation is sometimes just an expres-
sion of egotism and selfishness, although it need not and ought not to
be. In chapters 4 and 5, we saw that when procreation is undertaken for
reasons that simply seek to benefit the parents, it is morally unjustifiable.
Nonetheless, procreation cannot be entirely altruistic either: potential
parents cannot have a child for the child’s sake because before being cre-
ated, the child does not exist to have a sake, an interest, in anything. Pro-
creation is the parents’ project, but it is not a project they can undertake
to benefit a potential baby. As a result, procreating is, for the parents,
self-oriented. But it is not inevitably selfish if one is seeking a relationship
with the child that will be based on the kind of love that I described in
the previous section.
218    Chapter 10

For some people, being a mother or a father is integral to their concept

of self. It is a matter of their individuality—who they are and how they
want to be connected to the world. Their sense of personal authenticity
and integrity draws them to parenthood. For some people, parenthood
is a “calling” (Kingston 2009, 39). Bergum gives the following example:
Joan is forty-six. Time is running out for her to exercise all the possibilities of
life, which, for her, included time to have her own baby. To her, having a baby is
part of a whole life, of living one’s life to its fullest, of exercising the talents and
capacities that one has. . . . For Joan, “being a mother and having a family is ex-
ercising a whole set of domestic capacities that you never exercise if you live on
your own.” She believes that it is totally wrong to say that a woman has missed
something out of life because she doesn’t have a child. Rather, “I think I’ll have
missed something out of my life if I don’t. It is something that I want to do. Hav-
ing a baby is not like getting some smart job. Having a baby is part of having a
life.” (1997, 77, her emphasis)

Hursthouse similarly remarks that “parenthood in general . . . [is] . . .

among the things that can be correctly thought to be partially construc-
tive of a flourishing life” (1987, 241). When people like Joan become
parents, they find not only that their “domestic capacities” are exercised,
but also that many other abilities have a chance to flourish: their ability
to observe; their understanding of human development and psychology;
their courage and tenacity; their appreciation for play; their artistic, musi-
cal, scientific, or athletic abilities; and their understanding of their own
place in the social world.
In choosing to have a child, one is deciding both to fulfill one’s sense of
who one is and at the same time aspiring to be a different person than one
was before the child came along. In becoming a parent, one creates not
only a child and a relationship, but oneself; one creates a new and ideally
better self-identity. To choose to have a child is to take on a life-changing
project. This is the case even with subsequent children; each child opens
up a new world of experiences and challenges and changes the existing
configuration of relationships of parent to parent and parent to child. The
parent grows the child (and the child will eventually outgrow the parent),
but, just as important, the child also grows the parent. Because becoming
a parent is creating a relationship, the child shapes the parent even while
the parent shapes the child.
The process can be challenging. Emily Grosholz writes: “There is noth-
ing more delicious than a baby, nothing funnier than a little kid, nothing
Procreation, Values, and Identity    219

more mysterious, bracing, and beautiful than a teenager. Raising children

is the best way I know to locate oneself in time, to bring the past and
future into relationship, which is also the way we continue to grow up”
(2009, A55). As novelist Anne Lamott describes her own experience as
the single mother of a son, “Having a child, loving a child deeply in a
daily way, forces you to connect with your mortality, forces you to dig
into places within that you have rarely had to confront before. . . . What I
found way down deep . . . by having a child is a kind of eternity, a capac-
ity for—and reserves of—love and sacrifice that blew my mind. But I also
found the stuff inside me that is pretty miserable. I was brought face-to-
face with a fun-house mirror of all the grasping, cowardly, manipulative,
greedy parts of me, too” (2007, 184–185).
Parenthood provides the opportunity for the growth of experience, the
expansion of knowledge, and perhaps even the development of humility.
One comes to know one’s limits—and then stretches them. Although one
can’t really know what it means to be a parent until one is already em-
barked upon it, having a child is an opportunity for self-transformation.
Perhaps it is the very unknown nature of parenthood itself that has the
potential to make it transformative.
There are of course many paths to self-transformation and a good
life—through artistic creativity, scientific discovery, athletic striving,
teaching, practicing medicine, nursing, farming, animal care, gardening,
building, designing, fixing things, being a worthy political leader, and so
on. Children are not essential to all good lives, nor are having and rear-
ing children prerequisites to becoming a good person. Moreover, there
are many childless persons who support, love, care for, and teach other
people’s children. Chosen childlessness has as much potential for the good
life as chosen parenthood has. In fact, the individual who chooses child-
lessness has made a decision that is easier to justify morally than is choos-
ing to procreate. Such an individual takes the less-risky path; no new,
vulnerable human beings are created. The genuinely unselfish life plan
may sometimes be the choice not to have children, especially in the case
of individuals who would otherwise procreate merely to please others, to
conform to convention, or to benefit themselves based on the delusion
that children will fix their problems.
As I stated in chapter 1, the burden of justification rests primarily on
those who choose to have children. Having children is morally risky. And
220    Chapter 10

the ideas I have explored in this chapter must not by any means be inter-
preted as a claim that parenthood is the only or even the primary path to
a flourishing life. But it is one such path.
Who am I to say this? What makes my opinion worth considering? I
first wrestled with the question of whether to have children or not almost
four decades ago. I am now the mother of two adult children, and my
experiences undoubtedly influence what I say. I hope the evidence that I
have presented and the arguments I have evaluated reveal the complex-
ity and difficulty of the procreation decision. But if, after taking account
of all the issues in this book, you are still considering whether to have a
child, I continue to say, “Don’t miss it!” Yet I also say, “Please consider
having no more than one each.”

Chapter 1

1.╇ I am also very interested in questions about parents’ role, the nature of paren-
tal rights and responsibilities, and children’s rights and responsibilities. But these
issues do not form part of this book.
2.╇ In general, I am reluctant to use the term child free. Although I recognize that
the term has libratory implications for some people who do not have children,
whether by choice or not, I think it is too much like words such as pest free and
virus free to be used justifiably. Because children are persons, it is no more ap-
propriate to use a term such as child free than to use in other contexts terms such
as woman free or disabled free.
3.╇ Whether it makes sense for a father to be proud of his newborn is an interest-
ing philosophical question. He has not, after all, performed the labor of gestation
and birth. Nor has he yet done much, if any, fathering—although he may well
have cared for the mother during her pregnancy and interacted indirectly with
her fetus.
4.╇ I am grateful to Kassy Wayne for drawing my attention to this part of Hurst-
house’s work.
5.╇ Thanks to Lynda Ross for drawing my attention to this article.
6.╇ In this book, for the sake of simplicity, I use language that assumes that all
human persons who gestate and give birth are female and identify as women. I
acknowledge that there have been a handful of transmen who have also given
birth—hence, the media phenomenon of the “pregnant man.” I intend my com-
ments about moral issues pertaining to conception, gestation, labor, delivery, and
parenthood to apply to these transmen also, although I recognize that their gender
identification will affect, often profoundly, their individual experiences of procre-
ative and parental events and conditions.
7.╇ When a woman chooses to have an abortion, it might be argued that it is not
appropriate to refer to her as a “mother.”
8.╇ Maier also adds later in her book that “a man no longer decides to become
a father. Fifty years ago it was the men who turned women into mothers, often
against their wishes. Nowadays the power relationship is reversed: only moth-
222    Notes

erhood is voluntary, not fatherhood. A man becomes a father only when he is

accepted as such” (2007, 110, her emphasis). It is odd to suggest that women sud-
denly have this much power, and Maier provides no evidence for it.
9.╇ The zeitgeist is changing, but perhaps more for men than for women. There are
recognized forms of male personhood that are quite independent of children yet
are considered fully acceptable and, indeed, even commendable or enviable. For
women, the expectation tends to be that they will simply add the role of mother
to their roles of paid employee and forever sexually attractive playmate.
10.╇ So-called surrogate motherhood, or what should be called “contract preg-
nancy,” cuts across procreation and adoption. A contract is made by the commis-
sioning person (usually a man) to create a baby who will be adopted by the man’s
partner, usually but not always a woman.
11.╇ Many “classic” works in feminist bioethics include sections on reproductive
issues (e.g., Holmes and Purdy 1992; Sherwin 1992; Mahowald 1993; Callahan
1995; Tong 1997). I have also contributed two books on reproductive technolo-
gies (Overall 1987, 1993).
12.╇ James Lenman suggests that the reason for this disconnect might be that “our
ordinary motivation is not sufficiently moral—or it might be because so much of
contemporary ethical theory is simply disconnected from the realities of human
moral experience” (2004b, 147). I suspect the disconnect to which he refers may
exist because so few women are writing about population ethics.
13.╇ I am not enthusiastic about the development of ectogenesis. It would be po-
tentially risky for the fetus, and it may well encourage contempt for and devaluing
of women—the idea that the contingent problems of women’s procreative capaci-
ties can be overcome by sterile and efficient science.
14.╇ In this book, I use the terms obligation, responsibility, and duty interchange-
ably. Although in some contexts it may be worthwhile to assign them different
meanings, such differences are not relevant to this project.
15.╇ I have attempted to make this distinction as clear and straightforward as pos-
sible, but in fact I have had to ignore some of the complexities of this way of cat-
egorizing ethical arguments. In some respects, deontology and consequentialism
are closely related, both generally in ethical theory and specifically in regard to the
ethics of having children. As an example of the latter, consider a culture in which
carrying on the male lineage is regarded as a good deontological reason for having
children. Whether that claim is morally justified or not, the women of that culture
will likely also experience pronatalist pressures to reproduce, the alleviation of
which provides a consequentialist reason (whether sound or not) for procreating.
16.╇ Cannold’s subjects listed the following reasons for not having children: “the
fear of and the desire to avoid the all-encompassing nature of maternal responsi-
bility and commitment, the fact that children are hard work and women’s work,
an unwillingness to parent without either a (currently lacking) husband or family
support, the desire to remain at the centre of and in control of their emotional
and/or working lives and the irreversibility of the childbearing decision (i.e. the
fear of being ‘trapped’)” (2003, 279).
Notes    223

Chapter 2

1.╇ For a history of the development of the concept of reproductive rights, see
Kates 2004.
2.╇ How such services should be funded is a separate issue that I cannot explore
here. Nonetheless, it seems plausible to me that if these services are part of the
health-care system and especially if prospective patients are not wealthy, then the
state should pay for them. (It is also often argued that public financing of IVF, in
particular, will reduce the incidence of gestation of HOMs [triplets, quadruplets,
and so on], and hence of all the medical problems [including blindness, cerebral
palsy, and death] and resulting costs borne by the public that are associated with
such infants [Barwin 2009] because if women do not have to pay for IVF them-
selves, then they will be less likely to expect that, to increase the odds of becoming
pregnant, large numbers of fertilized eggs be implanted at each attempt but will
be content with the implantation of only one or two at a time.)
3.╇ In Canada, for example, the overall live birth rate with IVF is 27 percent per
cycle (Bouzayen and Eggertson 2009, 243).
4.╇ Another moral reason for rejecting commercial contract pregnancy is that it is
the sale of babies (Overall 1993). However, I set this argument aside.
5.╇ Philosopher Elisabeth Gedge has suggested that my position may compromise
an analogous claim on behalf of a positive right to general health care (personal
communication,June 19, 2008), and such an implication is morally problematic.
However, there are always limits that must be placed on the availability of ser-
vices, even if those services are essential to life itself. For example, a system of
blood and organ donation is highly desirable, but no individual, no matter how
needy, has a right to the use of the blood or organs from another person if the lat-
ter person does not want to donate them. If there is a system of blood and organ
donation in which donors participate willingly, knowledgeably, and consensually,
then a needy patient is of course entitled to be served by that system if he or she
meets the criteria of medical eligibility. But the system cannot compel donors to
participate, and there is not a right to the use of other persons’ body parts.
6.╇ Note, however, that I am not saying that women (or men, for that matter) are
not entitled to set, as a condition for their participation in heterosexual sexual ac-
tivity, the requirement that their partner use contraception. We are entitled to do
so in order to protect (insofar as the effectiveness of contraception permits) our
procreative future. In such cases, the use of contraception is not coerced: because
each participating partner is entitled to say “no” to the sexual activity if he or she
does not want to use contraception, there is no compulsion.
7.╇ In this book, I do not discuss the general arguments for and against the justi-
fication of abortion. First, there is a huge body of literature about the abortion
issue, so attempting to summarize it here would take me too far from my original
topic. Second, I think the question whether to abort an embryo or fetus that has
already come into existence is different from the question primarily at issue in this
book, which is whether to conceive that embryo or fetus in the first place. How-
224    Notes

ever, in chapter 7 I make a few comments about the possibility that there may be
an obligation to have an abortion.

Chapter 3

I am grateful to the audiences at the University of Western Ontario Colloquium

Series, October 24, 2008, and the Queen’s University Department of Philosophy
Colloquium Series, March 26, 2009, for their interesting and intensely challeng-
ing feedback on this chapter. I also thank Kassy Wayne for her comments.
1.╇ For an early description of this issue, see Levy 1980.
2.╇ What I have to say here does not, however, deal with the situation of two male
partners—not because that situation does not raise interesting questions, but be-
cause I am focusing on cases in which one of the two persons is the actual gestator
of the prospective offspring.
3.╇ Questions have been raised (indeed, I have contributed to the discussion) about
whether respect for women’s reproductive freedom requires the death of the fetus
(e.g., Ross 1982; Overall 1987; Mackenzie 1992; Reader 2008). This issue is suf-
ficiently complex that it cannot be discussed here.
4.╇ An early discussion of this issue can be found in a paper by Wesley Teo (1975),
who argues that husbands have constitutionally recognized rights in an abortion
decision. I do not discuss his work because his claim is rooted primarily in Ameri-
can law rather than in moral theory and because Laura Purdy (1976) convinc-
ingly sets forth the many errors in his arguments.
5.╇ One wonders why some male philosophers are so worried about women who
become pregnant by deceit. One must be careful not to suppose that this occur-
rence is frequent, standard, or normal. Ho and Hubin’s concerns about deceptive
women remind me of some men’s equally overwrought fears about women who
supposedly lie about having been raped or sexually assaulted.
6.╇ A partially related case is where sperm is removed from a man’s body shortly
after his death and used to inseminate the man’s female partner (Bard 2006, 154).
The moral question in this case is thought to revolve around consent: whether
and when it occurred, whether it was freely and competently given, and what was
consented to.
7.╇ Male pregnancy has been suggested as another imaginable option. Even if pos-
sible, it would encounter the same problems as those I describe for ectogenesis.
8.╇ Thanks to Sue Donaldson for drawing my attention to this issue.
9.╇ The following thought experiment has been suggested to me: Suppose a wom-
an becomes pregnant and seeks an abortion. A physician performs the abortion
but keeps the fetus alive and then subsequently reimplants it, either in an artificial
uterus or in the uterus of a different woman, and the child comes to term. In
effect, this would be a case of a “purloined fetus.” The question is whether the
original woman is then financially responsible for the child. Consistency seems
to require that I say yes. However, it is also important to remember that there is
a huge material difference between the man in the purloined sperm case and the
Notes    225

woman having the abortion. The former is presumably conscious throughout the
activity and is in control of it—he can end the sexual activity if he chooses and can
dispose of the used condom. The latter may not be conscious or fully conscious;
to that extent, she is disadvantaged vis-à-vis responsibility for what happens to
her body and her fetus, and she has no way of stopping the abortion partway
10.╇ It is better for men both because men were once children and because men,
as human beings, have needs to be close to other persons, including their own
children. They might well regret any hasty decision to abandon the children they
have fathered.
11.╇ But suppose the woman completes the pregnancy and then decides that she
cannot or does not want to rear the child? Is the decision about adoption hers
alone to make? If the inseminator has no interest in helping to rear the child, then
he cannot prevent her from putting the child up for adoption. If, however, the
inseminator is committed to being involved in the child’s life in the role of father
and not just in the role of financial support, then the adoption decision arguably
should be different (cf. Brake 2005, 63). If the father is willing to rear the child on
his own and demonstrates that willingness, I think he should be allowed to—even
though I do not think that the woman has any obligation to sustain the pregnancy
in the first place in order to give the baby to him. That is, provided he is compe-
tent, his wish to raise his child would trump her wish to have the child adopted
by a stranger. But if the inseminator is committed only to financial support and
nothing more, he should not be able to prevent the mother from putting the child
up for adoption if that is what she needs or wants to do.
12.╇ See Shanley 1999 for discussion of the situation in which a mother and an
“unwed father” disagree about whether to surrender an infant for adoption.
13.╇ Kassy Wayne has pointed out to me that Manninen’s “virtuous” woman is
reminiscent of what Judith Jarvis Thompson says about women who are refused
abortions: that such women are required to be Good Samaritans (or more than
good) to the fetuses they carry (personal communication, March 2009).
14.╇ It may be as important or more important to note that the power involved in
pregnancy is power over the fetus and ultimately the infant insofar as what hap-
pens during pregnancy strongly influences the infant’s health.
15.╇ Manninen also says that a woman is acting nonvirtuously if she uses obtain-
ing an abortion as a method of revenge against the inseminator (2007, 13).
16.╇ An unwanted pregnancy may be experienced very differently than a wanted
pregnancy (Lundquist 2008).
17.╇ I also set aside the prospective social policy issues raised by ectogenesis, such
as whether it should be available; to whom it should be available; whether it
should be included within a socialized health-care system; and whether it is worth
funding and promoting compared to all our other competing health-care needs.
18.╇ I suppose another alternative is to remove ova from female aborted fetuses,
but such a process raises a number of issues about the source of, authority over,
and treatment of fetuses that I cannot examine here. In any case, there still re-
mains the general problematic issue: How would the fetuses be obtained?
226    Notes

19.╇ As far as I can see, the only way that ectogenesis might be a neutral process as
between two progenitors would be if it were possible to create a fetus using two
ova. In such a situation, if it were possible, each of the two ovum providers would
have exactly the same physical “investment” in the fetus and therefore exactly the
same authority to determine whether the fetus continues to be gestated within an
artificial uterus.
20.╇ There are, of course, limits on bodily autonomy, and those limits are defined
in part by the effects that the expression of our bodily autonomy may have on
other persons. Thus, for example, bodily autonomy is not a defense for a gesta-
tor’s deliberately harming her fetus if she intends to bring the fetus to term. As
Catriona Mackenzie suggests, “In pregnancy the assumption of parental responsi-
bility necessarily involves a certain commitment of one’s body. In other words, the
decision to continue a pregnancy . . . is a decision to assume responsibility (even
if only for nine months) for the well-being of the foetus and this entails providing
bodily nurture for it, perhaps even at some bodily risk to yourself” (1992, 146).
The reason for the assumption of this responsibility is that harming the person
whom the fetus will become is wrong.
21.╇ It might be suggested that the inseminator should be responsible for the costs
of extrauterine gestation. If acted upon, this approach would ensure, for good or
ill, that the ectogenesis solution to the problem of disagreement between gestator
and inseminator would be available only to the wealthy few.
22.╇ Indeed, there are many complex questions about which fetuses, if any, should
be saved and on what grounds (Bard 2006, 154–155).

Chapter 4

1.╇ See, for example, Gould 2002.

2.╇ People still tend to call reproductive technologies “new,” but given that the
first successful use of IVF was in 1978, in this fast-moving time they no longer
qualify as “new.”
3.╇ The potential pressure to be a replica, by the way, may be part of what is wrong
with cloning. I am not rabidly anticloning; I don’t think it is as radical a process as
some people believe, but I do think it might be bad for the children because of the
pressure of expectation that the child will be just like the individual from whom
he or she was cloned.
4.╇ The pressure to perpetuate the family is also ageist if the (usually male) first-
born is considered most important and has the privilege of inheritance and (in the
case of royalty and nobility) carrying on the title.
5.╇ There is not much danger that most nations will run out of productive citi-
zens. Even people sixty-five and older are not all mere dependents. The medical
treatments, policy changes, lifestyle improvements, and technologies that enable
people to live longer lives also permit them to remain in a healthy condition, with
a reduced incidence of disability, for a longer period. We should not assume that
old people do not and will not continue to work and pay taxes. Many of them
also make a large contribution to society through their volunteer labor.
Notes    227

6.╇ What if a woman were allowed to immigrate to a country only after her agree-
ment to have children there? This agreement once again creates some prima facie
responsibility, but it is countered by the fact that it might be bad for the child if it
is born simply as a means to fulfill a contract.

Chapter 5

I am grateful to Chris Lowry, Queen’s University, for his thoughtful and inspir-
ing comments on an early draft of this chapter and to the audience at the Four-
teenth International Association of Women Philosophers Symposium, “Feminism,
Science, and Values,” University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, June 25,
2010, where an early version of part of this chapter was presented.
1.╇ I return in chapter 6 to the idea that there is an obligation to avoid bringing
suffering people into existence.
2.╇ The debate is exemplified, to take just one example, by an anthology suitably
titled The Repugnant Conclusion (Ryberg and Tännsjö 2004).
3.╇ This point comes up again in chapter 7, when I discuss Julian Savulescu’s claim
that we have a moral obligation to maximize the quality of our children by em-
ploying genetic tests to select the “best possible” child (2001, 415).
4.╇ It may also be a point of personal honor for this woman to raise any babies
that she does create; hence, she cannot countenance any alternative that involves
birthing babies and giving them away.
5.╇ If the point is simply that disease-free existence is valuable for its own sake or
inevitably better than a life with disease (both of which assumptions are dubious),
then we seem to be approaching a kind of modified Repugnant Conclusion in
which women would have an obligation to create as many children as they pos-
sibly can, provided the children are not ill. I have already pointed out the fallacies
of this type of argument.
6.╇ Will the parents then go on to have yet another child in the hope that it will be
the right one? The moral problems are then reiterated.
7.╇ Thanks to Tabitha Bernard for alerting me to information about the effects of
early cord clamping.
8.╇ Sheldon and Wilkinson believe that opponents of creating savior siblings wor-
ry about a slippery slope leading to “designer babies”—infants selected through
PGD on the basis of hair and eye color (2004, 534). “Designer babies” are dif-
ferent from savior siblings in that the latter are created to be used as a medical
resource. Whether selecting babies on the basis of appearance (or other character-
istics such as intelligence or athletic ability) is morally justified is a separate issue.
It is morally troubling in its own right, as I show in chapter 7.
9.╇ It has also been suggested to me that there might be medical reasons for having
a child that would benefit the would-be mother. For example, it’s been speculated
that some women might become pregnant as a way to improve their own health—
if, for example, they believe that breastfeeding reduces one’s risks of breast cancer
or that it puts multiple sclerosis into remission. This plan is not as bad as having a
228    Notes

savior sibling because the child born to reduce its mother’s cancer risks is presum-
ably not subjected to further medical use after birth. But it is nevertheless still a
scheme that uses a child primarily as a means.
10.╇ Mianna Lotz, for example, raises the worry that a savior sibling will come to
see his own value as entirely instrumental regardless of whether his parents see
him in that way. He may interpret his creation as “entirely conditional upon his
possession of particular attributes or a capacity to fulfil predetermined and desig-
nated roles and expectations. . . . This may lead to feelings of subordination and
inferiority” (2008a, 299).

Chapter 6

I am grateful to Jackie Davies, Department of Philosophy, Queen’s University, for

her commentary on an earlier version of this chapter at the Queen’s University
Department of Philosophy Colloquium Series, February 14, 2008. I am also grate-
ful for extensive comments from Sue Donaldson, Adèle Mercier, and the rest of the
audience. Thank you also to the audience at the conference “Bearing and Rearing
Children: The Ethics of Procreation and Parenthood,” University of Cape Town,
South Africa, May 28, 2008, and especially to David Benatar for his comments.
1.╇ Thank you to Narnia Worth for drawing this article to my attention.
2.╇ I am grateful to Adèle Mercier for alerting me to this article.
3.╇ That is the very advice that philosopher Matti Häyry also gives to would-be
parents: because the individual whom we create might have a bad life, and be-
cause it is rational “to avoid the possible negative outcome, when the alternative
is zero,” it is rational to choose not to have children (2004, 377).
4.╇ The underlying assumption of this book is agnosticism with respect to the ex-
istence of God. Here I am using the idea that God exists only as a device to enable
the thought experiment.
5.╇ Adèle Mercier pointed out to me a troubling implication here: if the absence of
bad is good, then under every single actual and possible condition, there is an infi-
nite amount of bad, constituted by the absence of all the good that might but does
not exist. (Equally, of course, there is also an infinite amount of good, constituted
by all the bad that might but does not exist.)
6.╇ In his introduction to his edited anthology Life, Death, and Meaning, Benatar
writes, “To say that coming into existence is always a harm does not entail that
death—ceasing to exist—is always better than continuing to exist. One can claim
consistently that it would be better not to come into existence, but, all things
being equal, that it is nonetheless bad, once one has started to exist, to cease to
exist” (2004a, 10, his emphasis). This type of principle obviously does not hold
in other contexts. For example, would we say that a party is so dull and boring
that it’s a bad idea to go to it, but, once there, the dullness and boredom are not
sufficient to warrant leaving? Would we say that it’s bad to become a bureaucrat,
but having become one, the compelling reasons not to become a bureaucrat aren’t
necessarily strong enough to justify quitting? I’m not convinced. In these cases,
Notes    229

it would seem that the reasons for not going or not becoming, as the case may
be, are also strong enough to justify leaving or quitting. Yet Benatar assumes that
“the view that death is a harm to the one who dies is not an unreasonable view”
(2006, 196). That is, even though, according to him, it is always a harm to come
into existence, it is not automatically a benefit to end one’s existence. But based
on the preceding analogies to the party and the bureaucrat, we might wonder
whether his theory suggests rather strongly that suicide is almost always a good
thing, despite his denials (2006, 212–213).
7.╇ It is genuinely possible to regret the nonexistence of certain people. Thus, an
impoverished mother might regret that she did not have the time or resources to
have a second child. A father might regret that his son never had children of his
8.╇ What might Benatar say if human beings were immortal? Immortality presum-
ably would not, from his standpoint, make existence better than nonexistence. As
far as I can tell, only if we were invulnerable to pain or suffering of any kind might
Benatar’s argument not (in his view) be justified.
9.╇ In some cases, they can also have meaning by reference to other animals that
are sentient but are not persons. But I stress the person-referring meaning here be-
cause, although Benatar is willing to apply “better never to have been” to sentient
nonpersons, he is most concerned with persons.
10.╇ Benatar’s theory is reminiscent of the ontological argument for the existence
of God, but he attributes the opposite valence to existence. The ontological argu-
ment suggests that a being that is omniscient, omnipotent, and all good is very
great, but that being would be even better if it also existed. In the ontological
argument, existence is a property that adds value to an entity. In Benatar’s theory,
existence is a property that subtracts value from (sentient) entities.
11.╇ Benatar seems surprised that within almost every country the poor are just
about as happy as the rich. The implication appears to be that they are irrational.
Is he saying that because poor people have much less money than the rich, they
should be miserable? On the contrary, it may be entirely rational to make the best
of difficult circumstances if it is impossible to change them.
12.╇ I am not advocating that people in effect should take a happiness pill and
distance themselves entirely from reality. I am not advocating false beliefs across
the board, for, among other reasons, such beliefs may make one’s life go worse.
Instead, in the case of the subjective quality of one’s life, it is evident that one’s life
is often better if one focuses on the good than if one focuses on the bad. That is,
there is a genuine benefit from making a positive present-time assessment about
one’s life.
13.╇ Benatar concedes that “some people do enjoy the process of fulfilling some
desires” (2006, 78).
14.╇ I owe most of the argument, up to the end of criticism 3, to Matthew Kersten,
a student in Philosophy 204 at Queen’s University in fall 2009. He communicated
his arguments to me in an email message dated November 16, 2009. I am grateful
to Matt for his permission to use his arguments here.
230    Notes

15.╇ I’m grateful to Matthew Kersten and Rian Dewji, also an undergraduate stu-
dent in Philosophy 204 in fall 2009, for the inspiration for this analogy.
16.╇ I return in chapter 7 to the idea that there is an obligation to avoid bringing
suffering people into existence. For now, I want to concentrate on the idea that
there is no obligation to create happy people.
17.╇ A major example of this obliviousness is Benatar’s chapter on abortion, which
makes no reference to arguments in favor of abortion access that are based on
women’s entitlement to make decisions about their own bodies, arguments that
would obviate the need for discussions of the status of fetus, on which Benatar
18.╇ Consider the following quotation: “Whether or not one reproduces can have
a profound impact on the character and quality of one’s life. . . . It can affect the
quality of one’s sense of self. (For example, some people feel inadequate if they are
unable to produce children of their genetic own)” (Benatar 2006, 104).
19.╇ In an oral response to an earlier version of this argument, Benatar claimed
that his thesis would “liberate women” because they would no longer be expected
to reproduce. However, there is a difference between respecting women’s repro-
ductive freedom and telling women that they need not and even should not repro-
duce because all the results of their reproduction are bad.

Chapter 7

1.╇ Maier herself regrettably failed to live up to this responsibility and has had two
hapless offspring, now in their teens.
2.╇ Two of Parker’s criticisms are that it is impossible to rank embryos with respect
to their chances of the best life possible and that the best possible life cannot be
“lived by a person with no flaws of character or biology” (2007, 281–282). Sa-
vulescu answers these criticisms in Savulescu 2007 and in Savulescu and Kahane
3.╇ Savulescu and Kahane also mention the possible use of prenatal diagnosis,
followed in some cases by abortion (2009, 275), but I focus on the use of PGD
and IVF.
4.╇ Savulescu oddly writes, “I understand morality to require us to do what we
have most reason to do” (2001, 415). Such a capacious understanding of morality
will make far more actions morally required than common sense would ordinarily
accept. I have “most reason” to turn on both lights in my office rather than just
one. But surely I do not have a moral obligation to do so.
5.╇ Thanks to Herissa Chan for pointing out this issue.
6.╇ Then there are the social costs: providing IVF and PGD to all women who
procreate would undoubtedly require a huge investment of resources, medical
expertise, time, and technology, most of which are completely unnecessary to or-
dinary procreation.
7.╇ A case can be made that Suleman’s obligation not to procreate also rested on
the needs and well-being of the six children she already had, at least one of whom
Notes    231

has impairments. Because she has scant material resources and only her two aging
parents to count on, her decision to have additional children looks irrational as
well as immoral.

Chapter 8

I am grateful to the audience at the Fourteenth International Association of Wom-

en Philosophers Symposium, “Feminism, Science, and Values,” University of West-
ern Ontario, London, Ontario, June 25, 2010, where an early version of part of
this chapter was presented.
1.╇ This solution is similar to Elizabeth Harman’s solution to the Non-Identity
Problem, although she retains Parfit’s genetic version of identity: if the mother
has an alternative action in which she provides parallel benefits (the creation of
a life that will be reasonably good) without parallel harms (such as injury from
the mother’s drug use), then the action that causes the harm is wrong, even if the
identity of the resulting offspring is dependent on it (2004, 95).
2.╇ This claim about what pregnant women ought to do during pregnancy is not
the same as the slippery-slope requirements of complying with the PPB (discussed
in chapter 7), in which the woman would have to engage in extreme self-sacrifice
in order to produce the best child possible. Instead, I am advocating behavior that
is good for the fetus and good for the pregnant woman herself.
3.╇ Julian Savulescu and Guy Kahane note that if at least some parents act on the
PPB, they may eventually have children who are “far more intelligent, empathetic
or healthier than existing people.” “In comparison to such possible future persons,
most existing persons may count as suffering from disability” (2009, 290).
4.╇ I think Jack’s circumstances are like those of many people with Down syn-
drome who live in a supportive environment.
5.╇ As I show in chapter 10, the formation of a relationship is a profound and
morally valuable reason for choosing to have a child.
6.╇ However, I also believe that when women have a choice, they are entirely justi-
fied in aborting fetuses with potential physical or cognitive impairments. They are
obviously justified when it is known that the future child will suffer, but there are
several other reasons that can also make abortion for fetal impairment the right
choice. First, in some cases one cannot know ahead of time whether a particu-
lar impairment or set of impairments will cause suffering and whether they will
be a misfortune for the person who has them. Given these unknowns, potential
mothers are entitled to be cautious with respect to their procreative behavior.
The responsibility of nonmaleficence mandates procreative precaution. Second,
women who choose to abort a fetus with potential physical or cognitive impair-
ments have the right to make the judgment as to whether they, along with the rest
of their family, are capable of raising a child with impairments, for a child with
impairments may have care, development, and medical needs that demand great
courage, strength, and sacrifices so that he will not suffer and will have a happy
and fulfilled life. The mother is more likely than any other to be the one who cares
for the child, and she is entitled to decide that she cannot and will not do it.
232    Notes

Chapter 9

I am grateful to Chris Lowry for his helpful comments on parts of this chapter.
I am also appreciative of the students in my Queen’s University Philosophy 204
course, “Life, Death, and Meaning,” especially those in the fall 2007 class, for
pushing me to rethink my ideas about the extinction of the human race.
1.╇ My thanks to Narnia Worth and Michael Ashton for suggesting Dawkins’s
book to me.
2.╇ As I have argued elsewhere (Overall 2003), it is unjust to seek population
control by expecting aging persons to step aside and abandon their lives to make
room for more human beings. The obvious reason is that they themselves are per-
sons, and they already exist. It is immoral to expect them to deprive themselves
prematurely of their own existence. In contrast, when we consider procreation,
we are contemplating people who do not yet exist; so no beings will be deprived
of existence if we make a moral commitment to limit procreation.
3.╇ Scott Wisor states a less extreme version of the argument: “Since having more
children will likely cause more environmental destruction and having fewer chil-
dren will likely reduce contributions to environmental destruction, individuals
ought to limit family size for environmental reasons” (2009, 27).
4.╇ I am not speaking here of laws to compel people not to procreate. I think such
laws would be both unenforceable and unconscionable. What I am considering is
the possibility that we can legitimately say that people in developed nations have
moral responsibilities to limit their procreation because of the global dangers of
overpopulation to all of us.
5.╇ It is a separate practical and moral question how a single man or a pair of men
would go about having children. I am not hereby condoning commercial contract
motherhood, which I think is morally problematic (Overall 1987, 1993). I am,
however, reiterating the point from chapter 7 that neither one’s sex/gender nor
one’s sexual orientation make it morally impermissible to have a child.
6.╇ Of course, those with sufficient wealth and connections may also use sex selec-
tion and sex preselection to try to ensure that they get the desired sex/gender in
their offspring on their first try. I do not endorse these methods, nor do I think
that a desire for a child of a particular sex/gender is easy to justify. I think it’s
better for children and parents if the parents are accepting of and pleased about
the kinds of children they end up with. Even worse are those parents who keep
“trying” for a child of the right sex/gender and end up with, say, four girls before
finally landing the much-desired son.
7.╇ I set aside criticisms of the idea that limiting one’s procreation is a type of
consumer activism, although it appears to assume unwisely that children are con-
sumer products.
8.╇ The exception may be their youngest child, number 19, Josie Brooklyn, who
was born four months premature, in December 2009, and weighed only one
pound six ounces (Duggar and Duggar 2011).
Notes    233

9.╇ However, the large family may victimize the children or at least the daughters
because they are expected to raise their own siblings and to marry young, with
no education beyond their limited “home schooling.” Moreover, it is possible that
women with less freedom and access to the outside world than Michelle Duggar
may have little choice (given their fundamentalist beliefs, their embeddedness in
a religious culture with a commitment to complete male power, and their lack of
access to contraception and abortion) about how many children to have and may
have no opportunity to learn ways of thinking that might lead them to question
their submissive position.
10.╇ Lonnie Aarssen makes a similar prediction, at least for the long term: “We can
expect that the males and females who leave the most descendents in the long-
term future will necessarily be those with the strongest parenting drive (2007,
1775). Compare David Benatar’s comment: “Those with reproduction-enhancing
beliefs are more likely to breed and pass on whatever attributes incline one to
such beliefs” (2006, 205).
11.╇ Of course, although individual choice is the focus of this book, truly global
change cannot happen only through changes in individual behavior. It must be
supported by national and global efforts to reduce poverty, lower infant and ma-
ternal mortality, eliminate hunger and illiteracy, increase education and employ-
ment, and drastically reduce nonsustainable industry and agriculture.
12.╇ With a 2008 fertility rate of 1.4, Russia’s population is projected to decline
from 140 million in 2009 to 128.5 million in 2025 and 109.4 million in 2050
(“Russia’s Demographic Profile” 2010).
13.╇ Note that this claim is different from the idea critiqued in chapter 4, that
bearing children is intrinsically worthwhile.
14.╇ Even so, there are limits to how far this principle should be taken. Respect
for members of the human species should not, for example, rule out abortion,
although I do not have room here to argue for this claim.
15.╇ Despite his skepticism, Lenman mentions one positive argument indicating
that human extinction would be bad: he suggests the possibility that our prema-
ture extinction at least might be bad if it cuts off the human narrative before it has
run its course, perhaps while human beings are, so to speak, only in their species
childhood (2004b, 141). The question, then, is whether there is any such species-
encompassing narrative and, even if there is, how we might discern it (and thus
decide when it is complete and extinction no longer bad). We have no knowledge
of a grand, overarching purpose toward which our species is moving; in the ab-
sence of a religious framework and a God who is involved in human life, it is hard
to see how there can be one. We do not know whether we are in the childhood,
the adolescence, the early adulthood, the middle adulthood, or the late adulthood
of our species. We also do not know whether these life-stage concepts even apply
to the trajectory of the human species.
16.╇ Mautner is insouciant about this kind of problem. He says, for example, that
we need not worry about fouling the universe as we spread throughout it: “Seed-
ing other planetary systems could prevent the study of pristine space but seeding
234    Notes

a few hundred new solar systems will secure and propagate life while leaving
hundreds of billions of pristine stars for exploration” (2009, 437).
17.╇ For some reason, certain other philosophers who have written on these is-
sues are rather less impressed than I am by the vast possibilities of a seemingly
limitless universe. Leslie, for example, writes that human beings might be unique:
“Humans could easily be the only intelligent living beings who would ever have
evolved in our galaxy, or in all the galaxies observable by our telescopes” (1996,
178). And Mautner, despite his belief in hundreds of billions of stars, not only
agrees that human beings might be the only intelligent life but also says that our
planet might be the only site of any life at all in the entire universe (2009, 437).
18.╇ As noted in previous chapters, many who write on this issue blithely overlook
this drawback to morally obligated procreation. Torbjörn Tännsjö, for example,
goes so far as to remark that if the universe (rather implausibly) turns out to be
empty of intelligent beings other than those on Earth, then “no sacrifice will seem
too hard” to colonize as much of the universe as we can (2004, 232).

Chapter 10

1.╇ Bennett also thinks implausibly that unless a life is not worth living, “it will
always be in [the] child’s interests to be brought into being” because “it is, after
all, that child’s only chance of existence” (2004, 379). As I have shown in previous
chapters, she’s wrong about this. Many of our lives are indeed worth living, but
unless individuals enjoy some sort of ethereal preconceptual existence, it cannot
be in their interest to come into existence; they have no interests before they come
into existence.
2.╇ The concept of unconditional love is related to the Christian tradition of turn-
ing the other cheek. The Book of Matthew in the New Testament exhorts the
reader to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate
you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (5:44).
3.╇ Maybe that’s why some people are attracted only to babies: as a child becomes
autonomous and develops a mind of his own, he must be seen as an independent
person, not simply an object to be enveloped in unconditional love.
4.╇ The parent loves the whole child, and of course who he is will include faults
and weaknesses in addition to endearing qualities. But if a dearly loved child
somehow grows up to become a vicious batterer, an unrepentant rapist, an unfeel-
ing terrorist, or a serial murderer—an identity quite inconsistent with who he pre-
viously was—no parent should be expected to love him still. A parent who abuses
or exploits his child should similarly not expect his offspring to continue to love
him. People are responsible for what they do, and if what they do is consistently
cruel and vicious, then there is not much to love in them.
5.╇ Perhaps “loving children” in general is as morally suspect as “loving” any other
group of people would be. We do not speak of “loving” people with blue eyes,
people who are left-handed, or people who are six feet tall. The idea of loving an
entire subset of humanity just because they are very young is uncomfortably akin
Notes    235

to loving kittens. Love is for a particular person, not for the entire group to which
the person belongs.
6.╇ Lenman concedes the charge of selfishness but makes a further statement
about it: “The desire to have children is a selfish sort of sentiment, to be sure, but
in a peculiar and complicated way. Partly it is a matter of wanting there to be a
constituency for that range of our moral and altruistic instincts that we bring to
bear on our immediate successors.” Procreation is the expression of “a desire that
there be objects for certain central other-regarding emotions to engage with and a
desire both to have certain projects and commitments that transcend the limits of
one’s own lifetime’s efforts and to have those projects and commitments flourish”
(2004b, 144, 146). I believe that Lenman’s somewhat ponderous statement fails to
capture what is at the heart of the parent-child relationship. Prospective parents
probably do not and ought not to think, “I want to have a child so that I can have
a focus for my altruism and my other-regarding emotions.”

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Basic Bioethics
Arthur Caplan, editor

Books Acquired under the Editorship of Glenn McGee and Arthur


Peter A. Ubel, Pricing Life: Why It’s Time for Health Care Rationing
Mark G. Kuczewski and Ronald Polansky, eds., Bioethics: Ancient Themes in
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Gita Sen, Asha George, and Piroska Östlin, eds., Engendering International
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Lenny Moss, What Genes Can’t Do
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Glenn McGee, ed., Pragmatic Bioethics, 2d edition
Timothy F. Murphy, Case Studies in Biomedical Research Ethics
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Kenneth A. Richman, Ethics and the Metaphysics of Medicine: Reflections on
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Harold W. Baillie and Timothy K. Casey, eds., Is Human Nature Obsolete? Genet-
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Robert H. Blank and Janna C. Merrick, eds., End-of-Life Decision Making: A
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Margrit Shildrick and Roxanne Mykitiuk, eds., Ethics of the Body: Post-Conven-
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Alfred I. Tauber, Patient Autonomy and the Ethics of Responsibility
David H. Brendel, Healing Psychiatry: Bridging the Science/Humanism Divide
Jonathan Baron, Against Bioethics
Michael L. Gross, Bioethics and Armed Conflict: Moral Dilemmas of Medicine
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Karen F. Greif and Jon F. Merz, Current Controversies in the Biological Sciences:
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Deborah Blizzard, Looking Within: A Sociocultural Examination of Fetoscopy
Ronald Cole-Turner, ed., Design and Destiny: Jewish and Christian Perspectives
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Mark A. Bedau and Emily C. Parke, eds., The Ethics of Protocells: Moral and
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Jonathan D. Moreno and Sam Berger, eds., Progress in Bioethics: Science, Policy,
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Eric Racine, Pragmatic Neuroethics: Improving Understanding and Treatment of
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Martha J. Farah, ed., Neuroethics: An Introduction with Readings

Books Acquired under the Editorship of Arthur Caplan

Sheila Jasanoff, ed., Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age

Christine Overall, Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate

Aarssen, Lonnie, 3–4 Bennett, Rebecca, 166, 205–206

Abortion Bergum, Vangie, 192–193, 206, 218
and contraception, 150 Better Never to Have Been, 16, 96
and fetal impairment, 149–150, 164, Biodiversity, 196–199
168 Biological clock, 3–4
“financial,” 39, 42 Birth rates, 177–178, 185, 191
and male deception, 49 Bodily autonomy, 21, 37–38, 40, 53, 55
and parental disagreement, 36, 45 Bone marrow extraction, 85, 89–91
and right not to reproduce, 114 Bova, Ben, 28
and sex selection, 182 Boyle, Robert, 83
Adoption, 12, 28 Brake, Elizabeth, 36–37, 43–45, 52, 54
and same-sex parents, 137–138
and savior siblings, 89 Canada, 62, 191–192
Age of parents, 132–136, 147, 157 Cannold, Leslie, 15, 79
Agnosticism, 67, 228n4 Caplan, Bryan, 78–79
Aksoy, Sahin, 194–196 Card, Claudia, 120
Allen, Jeffner, 120, 123 Cassidy, Lisa, 10, 142–143, 147
“All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Childbearing, 59–61. See also
Hate Parenting,” 79 Pregnancy
Altruistic pregnancy, 39, 50–52 “Child-free” women, 15, 191, 221n2
Altruistic surrogacy, 138 Childlessness, 12, 219
Anderson, Elizabeth, 212 Children
Art, procreation as, 211 and age of parents, 134–135
Ashton, Michael, 188–190 benefits of having, 208
Assisted reproduction, 13 benefits of not having, 207–208
Autonomy best possible life for, 128–129
bodily, 21, 37–38, 40, 53, 55 child support, 42–43, 47–48, 55
procreative, 37, 40 conditional/unconditional love for,
Bard, Jennifer S., 36, 40, 52, 54 decision to have, 1–2
Barker, David, 156 environmental impact of, 185–187
Bayles, Michael, 174 and gift of life, 57
Benatar, David, 16, 82, 96–117, 141– hypothetical consent of, 33, 57
142, 151, 197 identity of, 153–155
250    Index

Children (cont.) purloined sperm, 37, 42, 44–49

intrinsic value of, 59–61 Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist
as labor, 76 Medical Eugenics, 163
as liability, 76–77 Deontological arguments, 15, 57–70
likelihood of suffering, 141–142, basis of, 58–59
159, 205 civic duty, 68–70
as means, 64, 66, 70–80, 83, 85–92, family duty, 64–65
211 and gratitude, 57
nature of, 123 intrinsic value of childbearing, 59–61
and parental disagreement, 42–43 lineage, 61–64
as public good, 69 and one-child-per-person responsibil-
reasons for having, 15–17, 77–80 ity, 187
reasons for not having, 121–122 and procreative obligations, 58
and reproductive rights, 21 promises, 65–66
sibling relationships, 182 religious duty, 66–68, 187–188
China, 182 DeVille, Kenneth, 133
Choice, 1–3, 5–6, 11 Disabilities, 159–160, 163. See also
Civic duty, 68–70 Impairments
Collective morality, 6–7 Discrimination, 22–23
Conditional love, 214–216 Disease-free existence, 82
Conjoinment, 160 Divine command, 66–68
Consent Donaldson, Sue, 123, 141
of hypothetical children, 6, 33, 57 Donne, John, 4
male, 43–47 Donor insemination, 27–28, 33,
of ova and sperm donors, 27 43–46
Consequentialist arguments, 16, Down syndrome, 72, 160
71–93 Duggar, Michelle and Jim-Bob, 67,
children as means, 71–80, 83, 85–92 187–188
children as public good, 69 Duty, 64–70
economic benefits, 76–77 Dwarfism, 160
psychological benefits, 77–81
Repugnant Conclusion, 73–74, 130– Ectogenesis, 13, 39–40, 52–54
131, 194–195 Eldercare, 182–183
savior siblings, 81–93 Environmental impacts, 180–181,
utilitarianism, 71–75, 126, 130–131, 185–186, 188–189
194–195 Ethics
Contraception, 9, 11 and adoption, 12
and existence as harm, 115–116 and knowledge, 203
moral requirement to use, 150 panbiotic, 195
rights to, 30–31 of procreation, 2–8, 10–13
Contract motherhood, 138 and prudential decisions, 5–6
Contract pregnancy, 27–28, 39, 157, Eugenics, 62, 149
222n10 Europe, 191
Euthyphro dilemma, 67–68
Dawkins, Richard, 190 Evolution, 200, 202
Deception Existence, consent to, 6, 33, 57
male, 49 Existence as harm, 95–116, 173–174
Index    251

absence of good/bad, 96–98, 105– Gender, 8–13, 203

106, 111 and ectogenesis, 52–53
and contraception, 115–116 and reproductive decisions, 8–10,
and death, 109 173
and desires, 110–111 and Repugnant Conclusion, 74
and nonexistence, 99–100, 116 Genetic arguments, 61–63, 189–190
person-referring terms, 104–105 Genetic testing, 158
pleasure/pain balance, 111–113 Gibson, Susanne, 80, 216
prevention of suffering, 106 Gilbert, Daniel, 78
and properties of persons, 106–107 God, existence of, 66–68, 206–208
and reproductive duty, 113–115 Gosselin, Kate, 72
and risk aversion, 102 Grandparents, 64–65
and subjective well-being, 107–109 Gratitude, 57
wrongful life, 95 Grosholz, Emily, 218
Expressivist argument, 165 Guillebaud, John, 178–179
Extinction of human species, 17, 175,
191–202 Hales, Steven D., 36–38, 42, 45, 54
benefits of, 198 Hannan, Sarah, 19
and declining birth rates, 191–192 Happiness, 71, 193–194
and evolution, 200, 202 Harm, existence as. See Existence as
and human culture and abilities, harm
199–202 Harman, Elizabeth, 205
and intrinsic value of life, 194–196 Harris, George W., 38
and obligation to reproduce, 192– Hayes, Pip, 178–179
194, 200–202 Häyry, Matti, 205
and potential for happiness, Health care
193–194 reproductive services, 22–27, 175
threatened species, 198 and social goals, 25–26, 28–29
and uniqueness of species, 196–199 Higher-order multiples (HOM), 25–
26, 127, 144–147, 152
Family duty, 64–65 Ho, Dien, 36–37, 39–41, 45, 54
Family name, 63 Hollingworth, Leta S., 4, 119, 122
Family size, 176, 184–185, 187–189 Homosexual parents, 29–30, 137
Fatherhood, 134–135. See also Hubin, Don, 36–37, 42, 45, 54
Parenthood Hursthouse, Rosalind, 3, 59–60, 211,
Feit, Mel, 38–39, 42 218
Feminism, 8–10, 120, 130, 222n11 Hutchinson, D. S., 31
Fertility rates, 177–178, 185, 191
Fetal impairments, 149–150 I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, 176
“Financial abortion,” 39, 42 Impairments, 72, 149–171
Firestone, Shulamith, 120 and abortion, 149–150, 164, 168
Floyd, S. L., 32 and age of mother, 157
Future people, 174 attitudes toward, 164–169
defined, 159–160
Gamete donation. See Ova donation; and disabilities, 159–160, 163
Sperm donation fetal, 149–150, 156
Gay men, 137–138 genetic/social costs of, 164–165
252    Index

Impairments (cont.) Lineage, 61–64

heritable, 156–157 “Lives No One Should Have to Live,”
ignorance of, 157–159, 168 166
and material resources, 170–171 Lotz, Mianna, 6–7
and multiple births, 152 Lowry, Chris, 86–87
Non-Identity Problem, 150–154
nonmaleficence, 154–157, 168 Maier, Corinne, 11, 78, 120, 122–123,
and obligation not to reproduce, 178
149–152 Male reproductive rights
parental, 169–171 and child support, 42–43, 47, 55
and parental competence, 167, and ectogenesis, 52–53
169–171 procreative asymmetry, 36–37, 40–41
and postponement of conception, right not to reproduce, 75–76
154–155 and same-sex parents, 137–138
and quality of life, 161–164, 167 Manninen, Bertha Alvarez, 36, 38,
socially constituted, 160–161, 170 50–54
social responsibility for, 156 Mautner, Michael N., 195–197
tolerance of, 166 McClamrock, Ron, 159
Inheritance, 63 Men. See also Male reproductive
Intrinsic value of childbearing, 59–61 rights
Intrinsic value of life, 194–197 bodily autonomy, 27, 31
In vitro fertilization (IVF), 11, 25–26, and consent, 43–47
81–82 and deception, 49
and HOMs, 144–145 fatherhood, 134–135
and older women, 136 gay, 137–138
and procreative beneficence, 125–128 and purloined sperm, 37, 42, 44–49
Meyers, Diana Tietjens, 2, 10
Japan, 191 Mommy gene, 3
Jon and Kate Plus Eight, 176 Morality, collective, 6–7
Moral rights, 20
Kahane, Guy, 125–126, 129 Moriarty-Simmonds, Rosaleen, 169
Kahn, Jeffrey, 83, 91 Motherhood, 122–123. See also
Kaposy, Chris, 106 Parenthood
Kate Plus Eight, 176 and age, 134–135, 157
Kates, Carol A., 20 contract/surrogate, 27–28, 39, 138,
Kersten, Matthew, 111–112 157, 222n10
economic cost of, 76–77
Lamott, Anne, 219 oppression of, 120, 124
Laurence, Margaret, 2 single, 138–139
Legal issues, 13 My Sister’s Keeper, 90
Leibovich, Lori, 8
Lenman, James, 3, 117, 150–151, 156, Nickson, Elisabeth, 191
174, 195–196, 201 Nineteen Kids and Counting, 67, 176
Lesbian parents, 29–30, 137 Nobel Prize winners’ sperm bank, 62
Leslie, John, 193 Nonexistence, 99–100, 104–105, 111,
Liberty right to reproduce, 29–30, 113, 116
117–118, 173 Non-Identity Problem, 150–154
Index    253

Nonmaleficence, 154–157, 168 environmental impacts of, 180–181,

Nonrational procreation, 205–209 185–186, 188–189
and family size, 176, 184–185, 187–189
Obligation not to procreate, 117–147, fertility rates, 177–178, 185, 191
174. See also Impairments one-child-per-couple limitation,
and acceptable risk, 117 181–184
and age of parents, 132–136, 147 one-child-per-person responsibility,
and best possible life, 128–129 183–191
and children’s welfare, 141–142 responsibility for, 179–180, 186
and competence of parents, 142–144
and good life, 131–132 Pain, 85, 98, 101, 105, 110–113
and HOMs, 144–147 Panbiotic ethics, 195
and impairment, 149–152 Parental disagreement, 35–55
and IVF, 125–128 and abortion, 36, 45
lifelong/temporary, 119 and child’s well-being, 42–43
and material situation of parents, and ectogenesis, 39–40, 52–55
139–141 and male consent, 43–47
and negative right to reproduce, and procreative asymmetry, 36–37,
117–118 40–41, 55
and parenthood, 123–124 and purloined sperm, 37, 42, 44–49
and procreative beneficence, 124– types of, 35–36
131, 147 “virtuous” solution, 50–52, 55
reasons for, 119–122 Parenthood, 6–7
and Repugnant Conclusion, and age, 132–136, 147, 157
130–131 asymmetry of, 215–216
and sexual activity, 118 and competence, 142–144, 167,
and sexuality/marital status of par- 169–170
ents, 136–139, 147 and conditional/unconditional love,
and social policy, 130 213–216
Obligation to procreate, 32–33, 58 economic benefits of, 76–77
civic duty, 68–70 and expectations, 63
and extinction of human species, and happiness, 78–79
192–194, 200–202 and health, 156
family duty, 64–65 homosexual parents, 29–30, 137
religious duty, 66–68, 187–188 as identity, 217–220
One-child-per-couple limitation, and material resources, 139–141
181–184 meaning of, 209–212
One-child-per-person responsibility, and obligation not to reproduce,
183–191 123–124
O’Neill, Onora, 1, 22, 142–143 parental impairments, 169–171
Oppression, 120, 124, 142 parenting drive, 4
Organ harvesting, 89–91 perceptions of, 121–122
Orwin, Clifford, 185 psychological benefits of, 77–81
Ova donation, 27–28, 33, 45 as relationship, 212–217
Overpopulation, 17, 175–191 same-sex, 29–30, 136–139, 147
and developed/developing countries, as self-transformation, 219
178–179 single, 23–24, 48, 136–139, 147, 182
254    Index

Parfit, Derek, 73, 132, 150–152, 156 Rashbrook, Patricia, 178

Parker, Michael, 75, 131–132 Relationship, parent-child. See
Parks, Jennifer, 135 Parenthood
Pascal, Blaise, 206–208 Religious duty, 66–68, 187–188
Pascal’s wager, 207–208 Reproduction, selective, 62
Patel, Vishaal, 101–102 Reproductive rights, 14–15, 19–33.
Perfectionism, 75 See also Male reproductive rights
Philosophical asymmetry, 71 and children’s well-being, 21
Physicians, 23 constraints on, 22
Plato, 67 foundation of, 20–21
Pleasure, 98, 111–113 and gamete donation, 27–28, 33
Pomerantz, D., 32 limitations on, 25–26, 32–33
Population, 17, 33. See also moral and legal, 20, 28
Overpopulation negative/liberty right to reproduce,
birth rates, 177–178, 185, 191 29–30, 117–118, 173
and older parents, 136 positive/welfare right to reproduce,
potential decline in, 191 22–29, 32, 173
and utilitarian argument, 73–74 prima facie, 22, 28
Possible people, 174 and procreative asymmetry, 36–37,
Poverty, 101, 140–141 40–41
Powdthavee, Nattavudh, 78 and reproductive coercion, 31–32
Pregnancy, 115 and reproductive services, 22–27
and adolescents, 133 right not to reproduce, 30–32, 75–
altruistic, 39, 50–52 76, 114–115, 173
contract, 27–28, 39, 138, 157, 222n and savior siblings, 81–82
as heroic, 59–60 and social identity, 23–24
multiple, 127 and women, 21
and older women, 135–136 Repugnant Conclusion, 73–74, 130–
as power, 50 131, 194–195
and responsible behavior, 155–156 Richards, Norvin, 166–167
and right not to reproduce, 114 Right not to reproduce, 30–32, 75–76,
unwanted, 31–32 114–115, 173. See also Reproduc-
Preimplantation genetic diagnosis tive rights
(PGD), 81–82, 125–128 Robertson, John, 83, 91
Prenatal screening, 29, 126 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 22
Prima facie rights, 22 Ruddick, Sarah, 123
Principle of Procreative Beneficence Russia, 233n12
(PPB), 124–131, 147, 149, 174
Procreative asymmetry, 36–37, 40–41, Same-sex parents, 29–30, 136–139,
55 147
Procreative autonomy, 37, 40 Savior siblings, 81–93
Procreative beneficence, 124–131, and adoption, 89
147, 149, 174 bone marrow and organ donation,
Promises, 65–66 85, 89–91
Pronatalism, 64–65 as means, 83, 85–92
Purdy, Laura, 155, 157, 159 psychological damage to, 91–93
Purloined sperm case, 37, 42, 44–49 and reproductive rights, 81–82
Index    255

and umbilical cord clamping, 85 Vehmas, Simo, 153, 155, 158

Savulescu, Julian, 83, 124–131, 147, Velleman, J. David, 57, 146, 168
149, 174 Vernon, Richard, 19
Sayers, Rex, 192–193, 212 “Virtuous” solution, 50–52, 55
Selective reproduction, 62
Senior, Jennifer, 79 Wager, Pascalian, 207–208
Sexuality, same-sex, 137–138 Wagner, John, 83, 91
Sheldon, Sally, 82–83, 86, 91–92 Welfare right to reproduce, 22–29, 32,
Shiffrin, Seana Valentine, 96, 110 173
Sibling relationships, 182 Wendell, Susan, 161, 170
Single parents, 23–24, 48, 136–139, Wente, Margaret, 178
147, 182 Wilkinson, Steven, 82–83, 86, 91–92
Smilansky, Saul, 58 Wise, Jennifer, 176
Socialization, 4 Wisor, Scott, 185–187, 190
Social policy Women. See also Motherhood; Repro-
and child support, 48–49 ductive rights
and health care, 25–26, 28–29 and altruistic pregnancy, 39, 50–52
and impairments, 156, 160–161, 170 bodily autonomy, 21, 37–38, 40,
and obligation not to reproduce, 130 53, 55
and reproductive decisions, 174–176 “child-free,” 15, 191, 221n2
Species uniqueness, 196–199 and children’s well-being, 151
Sperm donation, 27–28, 33, 43–46, 62 and civic duty, 70
Spriggs, Merle, 88–89 economic cost of motherhood,
Steinbock, Bonnie, 159 76–77
Sterilization, 62 and family names, 63
Suleman, Nadya, 26, 145 and IVF, 127
Surrogate motherhood, 27–28, 39, as means, 70
138, 157, 222n10 moral superiority of, 59–60
and obligation to reproduce, 193–
Table for Twelve, 176 194, 202
Tännsjö, Torbjörn, 71, 73, 192 and one-child limitation, 182
Tay-Sachs disease, 157 and procreative beneficence,
Thomson, Judith Jarvis, 114 125–126
Timson, Judith, 79 and promises, 65–66
and purloined sperm, 37, 42,
Umbilical cord clamping, 85 44–49
Unconditional love, 212–214 and reproductive decisions, 8–11
United States reproductive labor of, 115
child-free women in, 15, 191, right not to reproduce, 30–32, 75–
221n2 76, 114–115, 173
compulsory sterilization in, 62 and utilitarian argument, 73–75
energy consumption in, 186 Wong, Sophia Isako, 160
pregnant adolescents in, 133 Wrongful life, 95
“wrongful life” suits in, 95
Unwanted pregnancy, 31–32 Young, Thomas, 180–181, 199
Utilitarianism, 71–75, 126, 130–131,